Houthis take Sanaa but refrain from coup

Following the Houthis' quick advance on Sanaa, the movement signed a national partnership agreement.

al-monitor Shiite Houthi rebels stand on a hill in Sanaa, Sept. 22, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

Topics covered

yemeni tribes, yemen security, sanaa, houthi movement, ali abdallah saleh, abed rabbo mansour hadi

Sep 22, 2014

The Houthi movement is acting strangely: The Houthis have seized control over Sanaa, following their organized advancement that started in various mountain areas, like a tidal wave slowly moving toward the capital in the past few weeks, and then invading it. Successively, the neighborhoods [under attack] were seemingly giving up. The fighting that took place in the outskirts of the city did not reflect resistance in any sense, as if the capital preferred to surrender to the angry popular expansion. The Houthis then immediately joined the settlement and partnership table, while having all the makings for a successful coup d’état in their grasp.

The battle was not easy. Hundreds of victims died in the sporadic clashes that took place in the suburbs and city center, leaving Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi quasi-surrounded in his residence, while the army’s posts were falling or surrendering successively.

There was news that [former] President Ali Abdullah Saleh's chief military adviser Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar fled to Qatar. This represented another blow by the Houthis to al-Ahmar tribe, which is the strongest player in modern Yemen’s history. It was also a blow to the same figure who was engaged in the regime’s wars against the Houthis in Saada, who is known for his close ties with the hard-line Islamic movement in Yemen and who was accused of “betraying” his companion and ally, Yemen’s ousted Saleh, two years ago.

There were many conditions allowing the Ansar Allah [movement] to make this political and military achievement with confidence. The mistake of raising fuel prices, which the authorities have done in a country where more than 50% of the population live below the poverty line, has been an important card used by the Houthis to act under an overwhelming popular cover. Hadi made a mistake when he ignored popular demand to back down from the decision to raise [fuel] prices and the Houthis used the cost of living [card] to attack the ramshackle regime that exists under poverty, corruption and political, social and tribal division at the gates of power, namely the government headquarters, the Defense Ministry headquarters, the TV building, the army barracks and the capital's airport.

It is no surprise that the capital has become dilapidated ahead of the Houthi expansion backed by strong popular support. Rather, the surprise is that the Houthis did not seize power [earlier] when the gates of the presidential palace were open to their popular and military power. Instead, the movement quickly accepted signing a settlement and national partnership agreement that was concluded by UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar. Thus, the Houthis threw away many of the sectarian, tribal and regional accusations [that come with] seizing power through weapons, which have been leveled against them in the past few weeks. Similar to the other Yemeni and tribal forces, they have many [weapons] in this afflicted country.

One factor allowing the Ansar Allah movement to achieve its resounding progress is the declining power and influence of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, which is known for being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently resents Saudi Arabia, and which is considered traditional, especially in the recent years. ... However, the irony is that the so-called “Gulf Initiative,” which allowed Saleh to reach power nearly two years ago, has allowed the Brotherhood and others access to power in Yemen. The recent developments, especially the six wars between the Yemeni state and the Houthis, have shown that the Yemeni Congregation for Reform is taking hostile positions toward the Houthis, based on its clear sectarian background. It is also denying the suspicious links between its leaders and the corrupt regime in the country.

This does not mean that Saudi Arabia is satisfied with Yemen’s [political] earthquake. [Saudi] official media outlets have repeatedly spoken of an Iranian plot on the southern border and a confrontation on the ground between Iranian and Saudi influences. Most likely, the kingdom — which was almost completely silent yesterday [Sept. 21] regarding what is happening in Sanaa — is confused by the Houthi expansion and its refraining from seizing power.

Reports had previously said that among the reasons for the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is Doha's support for the Houthis, which is in general an accusation that has not been clearly leveled. In addition to the Islamic State (IS), the Muslim Brotherhood and others on the terrorist list in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom announced in March that it had also included the Houthis. The Wahhabi religious establishment supported this classification by describing the Houthi movement as a terrorist group. Yet, the clearest political position was given by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, who made a phone call to the Yemeni president in the previous two weeks and told him that the kingdom is concerned about Houthi methods, characterized by “an aggression.” He also said that “Yemen's security is an integral part of the Saudi and [Gulf Cooperation Council] GCC security.”

Yet, a media spokesperson for Ansar Allah told As-Safir yesterday [Sept. 21] that “there is no justification for the Saudi fears,” and added that “external powers need to respect the will of the Yemeni people.”

Despite the acquisitions made on the ground, which ended yesterday with them exerting control over Sanaa and its institutions, the Houthis have signed “a peace agreement and national partnership” with the Yemeni political components, including the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, the General People's Congress and the Southern Separatist Movement, under the auspices of the United Nations. It stipulates the formation of a new government, a cease-fire and removing the protest camps in Sanaa and its surroundings, according to the Saba News Agency.

While it highlights the group’s main demand of “a partnership” and “drying up the sources of corruption,” the formal agreement, which was read by Benomar, provides that the president conduct consultations that would lead to the formation of “a government of technocrats” within a month, while the current government, from which [former] Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basendwah resigned yesterday [Sept. 21], will continue as a caretaker government.

According to the agreement, Hadi shall appoint a prime minister within three days. Political advisers to the president are also to be appointed from among Houthis and the Southern Movement. The new prime minister ought to be “an unbiased, nonpartisan figure.”

Houthis have one essential demand, which is the reduction of fuel prices. The agreement provided for a reduction of fuel prices to 3,000 rials [$13.90] per 20-liter tank, which is about half the price increase applied to fuel as of the end of July.

On the security level, the agreement stipulates that the state shall take control of vital facilities and that sit-in tents shall be removed from Sanaa and its surroundings, provided that “all acts of violence stop immediately” in the capital.

In conjunction with the signing of the agreement, according to the Yemen News Agency, “at the request of Ansar Allah, the military police started proceedings to take over all government buildings, which had fallen under the control of the Houthi movement during the events that swept the capital.”

Before signing the agreement, the Yemeni president delivered a speech saying that “the agreement represents a bridge toward implementing the outputs of the comprehensive national dialogue, and overcoming all obstacles and challenges, which stresses the need for the deal to be accurately implemented by all parties. This is not to mention the need to start an immediate cease-fire in Sanaa and the rest of the provinces and territories.”

Yesterday [Sept 21], Houthis made rapid progress in Sanaa after four days of continuous fighting on the city’s outskirts, especially in the Shamlan neighborhood in the north. They also advanced on 60th Street, where the private residence of President Hadi is located.

It seems that the group wanted to target the headquarters of al-Islah Party, al-Iman University — the stronghold of hard-line Salafi cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani — and the headquarters of the army’s first armored division, under the control of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. News began to swiftly circulate about the fall of Yemeni official institutions one after the other like dominoes in the hands of the Houthis, most importantly the government headquarters, the national radio station, military headquarters and major ministries in the capital, including the Ministry of Defense. This is not to mention the central bank and the seat of parliament, while government forces were withdrawing suddenly and on a large scale.

For his part, the spokesman for the Houthis, Mohamed Abdul Salam, said, “The military and security parties that supported the popular revolution and sided with the people’s choice were: the General Command of the Armed Force, the national radio station, the official institutions located in the Tahrir region and the prime minister.”

Sources said that Houthis “took control of the ministries of information and health, as well as the headquarters of the army’s 6th Division and the headquarters of the General Command of the Armed Forces.”

Furthermore, Abdul Salam had also announced taking control of the army’s 1st Armored Division — the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Ahmar, whose fate remains unknown following the Houthis' takeover. Many security sources have mentioned that “he was inside the division's headquarters, and is totally surrounded.”

Abdul Salam added, “The people’s committees announced the full and total cleansing of the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division, and that Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is wanted and needs to be brought to justice,” which implicitly backs reports that Ahmar fled the country.

Many eyewitnesses and political sources confirmed that at several military and political headquarters, now controlled by Houthis, “The army did not put up a real fight to resist.”

In a surprising and striking statement that was issued yesterday [Sept. 21] on the website of the Ministry of Interior, Yemeni Interior Minister Abdo Hussein al-Tarab called upon security apparatuses to cooperate and not to confront Houthis.

The statement added that the minister called upon “all the ministry’s employees not to clash with Ansar Allah and to cooperate with the movement in order to consolidate the pillars of security and stability and to consider the Houthi group as friends of the police.”

In conjunction with the Houthis' ground advancement and in light of the rising indicators suggesting the signing of the agreement on Sept. 21, Basendwah resigned, accusing Hadi of monopolizing power.

In a letter addressed to Hadi, Basendwah — who headed the government of national reconciliation formed under the power transition agreement that put an end to the rule of former President Saleh — said that “although the Gulf Initiative provided for partnership between myself and the president in leading the state, this was only carried out for a short period of time. Afterward, autocratic measures were taken to the extent that my government was kept in the dark regarding the security and military situation and our country’s relations with other states.”

Signatories to the Yemeni agreement

Political components in Yemen signed the “Peace and National Partnership Agreement” in the presidential residence in Sanaa, in the presence of President Hadi and the UN envoy to Yemen Jamal bin Omar. The signatories were Abdul Karim al-Eryani for the General People’s Congress; Abdul Wahab al-Ansi for al-Islah Party; Yehya Mansour Abu Osba for the Yemeni Socialist Party; Mohammed Moussa al-Ameri for the Rashad Party; Mohammed Abu Lohoum for the Justice and Development Party; Yassin Makawi for the Southern Movement; Hassan Zaid for al-Haq Party; Mohammed al-Rubahi for the Popular Forces Union Party; Qasim Salam for the National Democratic Alliance parties; Abdullah Awbal Mandouk for the Yemeni Unionist Gathering; Mohamed Zubayri for the Baath Party; Hussein al-Izzi and Mahdi al-Mashat for the Ansar Allah Movement. The Nasserist Unionist People's Organization was present during the signing of the deal but its representative Abdullah Noman did not sign it.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Khalil Harb