This article was originally published on Foreign Policy on 26 January 2015.
As Yemen’s government imploded like a dying star over the past week, I replayed in my head a number of events from my three and a half years in the country. Getting pulled aside by enthusiastic young Yemenis — drunk with optimism at the possibility of a better future — during the heady days of Arab Spring-inspired protests. Sitting in Yemen’s sprawling protest encampment in Change Square and listening to activists emit a series of unprintable curses the moment the internationally backed power-transfer deal was signed, pushing Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of power. The Houthis’ long journey from marginalized rebel group to the country’s apparent hegemon — and the various times editors passed on stories about milestones in this journey.
Bizarrely, the memory that keeps coming back to me is among the most mundane — a Jan. 27, 2013, visit by U.N. Security Council envoys to the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. It was a transparent PR stunt: Essentially, various members of the Security Council parachuted into Sanaa for two days, met with various political figures, and then held an overwrought press conference in the presidential palace compound, celebrating the fact that Saleh was out of power and that a “transitional road map” was in place.
Sitting with colleagues in the audience of the press conference, I was mostly just irritated by the loss of a day to theatrical nonsense, but as that sense of annoyance faded, it was gradually subsumed by a slow-burning rage. Even at that time, the dark comedy of a number of international diplomats swooping in to congratulate themselves for “solving” Yemen was difficult to bear. I’ll never forget watching dumbfounded as one of the representatives repeatedly asserted that the so-called transitional road map was still on track to allow for free and competitive elections by February 2014.
“It’s disgusting,” I remember seething to a Yemeni friend a few days later. “They think you’re all so stupid that they can just tell these baldfaced lies and that everyone will believe them.”
To state the obvious, few remain under any illusions that the so-called “Yemen model” is anything other than a sick joke.
To state the obvious, few remain under any illusions that the so-called “Yemen model” is anything other than a sick joke. After being under siege for a week, the presidential palace compound where the Security Council’s victory summit was held is now occupied by Iran-supported Houthi rebels. For 10 days now, Houthi gunmen have held hostage Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, a key presidential aide who rose to prominence as the secretary-general of the internationally celebrated National Dialogue Conference. Most members of the now-resigned government — including the former president and prime minister — are under apparent house arrest by Houthi-allied fighters.
These rebels have continued to crack down brutally on continuing protests against what demonstrators have dubbed a “coup,” arresting a number of activists. An apparent drone strike Monday morning, Jan. 26, has only heightened awareness of the United States’ often counterproductive role in the country.
Ironically, the roots of this current crisis lie largely with the November 2011 agreement that supposedly solved the political crisis engendered by Yemen’s Arab Spring-inspired uprising. The accord was the fruit of negotiations between then-President Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of the establishment opposition. It granted both sides immunity from prosecution, apportioned half the seats in a “unity cabinet” to each side, and paved the way for longtime Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s accession to power as a consensus candidate.
It could have been a potentially decent deal if not for the existence of two insurgencies in the country’s north and south, the crippling lack of goodwill between the JMP and the GPC, and protesters’ mistrust of the opposition, which some dismissed as little more than another arm of the regime. But these issues — in addition to frustration with increasing corruption and economic stagnation — doomed Yemen to falling on a path to even more violence. It’s doubly tragic, as the past three years represented an enviable chance to reform and reshape the country.
“This is a historical opportunity,” my late friend, Yemeni MP Mohammed Abdullah al-Qadi, a former member of Saleh’s party who backed the uprising, remarked back in 2012. “History will never forgive us if we fail to take advantage.”
Widespread anger with Yemeni power brokers’ apparent lack of ability to seize the moment ultimately fueled the backlash we are witnessing now. In the northern reaches of the Yemeni highlands, a long-dormant power was preparing to take advantage of the failures in Sanaa: The Houthis — a Zaidi Shiite-led rebel group that was once targeted in a series of brutal wars under Saleh — saw opportunity in the tumult to carve out a virtual statelet in the border province of Saada. As the months dragged on, the Houthis gradually extended their area of influence toward Sanaa through a mix of fighting prowess and skillful tribal outreach, simultaneously solidifying their position as a mainstream political actor while building an alliance of convenience with their former adversaries in Saleh’s party.
Things came to a head last fall as the Houthis took advantage of a hastily implemented removal of fuel subsidies to call for mass protests. Violent clashes ensued, and the movement took advantage with a September show of force in Sanaa. For many, it was a time of optimism — and indeed, the new normal received international blessing in the form of a “Peace and National Partnership Agreement.” But over the ensuing months, expectations that Houthi control over the capital would bring a comparative calm were dashed as the group started to suppress dissenting voices. The United Nations eventually responded by sanctioning Saleh and two key Houthi leaders in November, but the move appeared to have minimal effect — aside from heightening resentment of the international community among their supporters.
After years of headlines warning that Yemen was “on the brink,” it seems possible that the country has now fallen off the cliff.
After years of headlines warning that Yemen was “on the brink,” it seems possible that the country has now fallen off the cliff. The crisis came to a head over the past two weeks with Mubarak’s abduction, the siege on various government buildings, and the resignation of the cabinet. A widely anticipated emergency parliamentary session scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 25, has been postponed indefinitely, as efforts aimed at convincing Hadi to rescind his resignation have proved unsuccessful. U.N.-brokered negotiations aimed at forging a new agreement between the Houthis and other Yemeni factions have witnessed the withdrawal of several key political players, partly in response to a Houthi crackdown on youth activists protesting the movement’s presence.
It’s difficult to see any way out. But you can never give up hope: Perhaps a more sustainable political solution — one rooted in the country’s needs and political realities rather than in the visions of foreign diplomats — will rise from the ashes of the dramatic death of the internationally hailed Yemen model.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.