Supporters of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh attend a rally marking one year of Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen’s capital Sanaa March 26, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah. @Adobe Stock Images.

Yemenis lost their favorite man whom they loved to hate

This week’s dramatic events in Yemen, leading up to the assassination of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, left many struggling to understand the drivers behind what transpired and what may lay in store for this already anguished country. One interpretation, supported by the Iranian-backed Houthis, has it that Saleh’s actions were a result of collusion with the Arab Military coalition, and the United Arab Emirates in particular, for which he paid the ultimate price.

While politically expedient, this is a flawed if increasingly accepted narrative. Saleh’s actions were, in fact, driven primarily by inter-Yemeni dynamics that that have, and will likely continue, to shape what is, first and foremost, a Yemeni civil war.

Saleh, who was ousted in the wave of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, was a controversial ruling figure who maintained a powerful patronage network based on an informal system of governance that advanced the narrow interests of the ruling political elite. He created the General People’s Congress (GPC) as a mechanism for monopolizing political power, cultivating personal loyalty and managing competition among different tribal and elite factions. He was also a political opportunist, forging an alliance with the Houthis despite the fact that the two parties fought six separate wars against one another between 2004 and 2010.

While it lasted, the Houthi-Saleh alliance was politically beneficial for both. For Saleh, the accord allowed him to reenter politics, protected him from retribution for his role in the assassination of Houthi founder Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, and gave him time to rebuild his political power and military strength.  For the Houthis, the alliance gave them access to the GPC’s governing apparatus and experienced bureaucracy. More significantly, the GPC provided the Houthis with a veneer of political legitimacy, without which, they would have been seen as a sectarian group with a narrow support base, and political objectives which diverged from those that the 1962 Yemen Republic stands on.

Ultimately, the dissolution of the relationship was a gradual affair. Fault lines began to emerge as the Houthis’ pushed the GPC out of key ministries, monopolized military and state institutions, and refused to disband the Supreme Revolutionary Committee as agreed in the 2016 “national salvation government” with the GPC. For the Houthis, the GPC’s decision to hold a massive rally on the 24th of August to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the party seemed to vindicate their suspicions that the former president was planning a political comeback at their expense. As frustrations grew, so did opportunities for miscalculation and escalation.

Whether Saleh was simply swept up by events on the ground or believed that his time was running out is unclear. And although the Houthis argue that Saleh was forced into action by the Arab Military coalition in general, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) specifically, the coalition signaled its support for Saleh after the outbreak of violence, rather than before.

A more plausible explanation is that Saleh could no longer resist GPC pressure to take concerted action against the Houthis in order to end his own party’s marginalization. This may have been accelerated by what sources close to the former president believed was a Houthi plan to assassinate him. Under this scenario, Saleh may have calculated that fully mobilizing the GPC and attempting to rally the Yemeni people, presented his best chance for survival following the outbreak of hostilities.

Although badly outmatched, the GPC initially succeeded in capitalizing on popular frustration with a Houthi government whose oppressiveness has far surpassed that of Saleh, who lost full control of the army after the 2011 uprising. Systematic economic exploitation and egregious human rights violations have fueled this resentment. The Houthis destroyed the private sector by excessively taxing small businesses and residents, seizing control of the fuel supply, quadrupling the price of gasoline, collecting illegal telecom duties, and robbing the Central Bank. In addition, they have lost the trust of the population by using child soldiers, violating due process, reselling confiscated food aid and medicine at inflated prices and preventing humanitarian agencies from reaching those affected by the cholera outbreak.

For the near term, Saleh’s death has left the GPC in shambles. Its supporters do not share a coherent ideology or religious platform, and there is a real question as to whether the organization will outlast its founder. While there is some desire for Saleh’s son, Ahmad Ali, to return to Yemen to take charge of what remains of the organization, this in unlikely to happen without support from the UAE and the broader Arab Military Coalition. Even then, its short-term prospects are questionable.

While the GPC is in disarray, the same cannot be said of the Houthis. The party is well organized, disciplined, has a clear chain of command, and a shared ideology. During the battle for Sana’a, they deftly redeployed their forces, ceding ground in the capital in order to systematically subdue each of the tribes that might come to Saleh’s aid by kidnapping their sheikhs and inflicting heavy casualties on those who disobeyed. Despite having taken their name from their founder, the Houthis are also less reliant on any one individual than the GPC. They survived the loss of their founder and it is widely believed that they will quickly agree on a successor should their current leader fall.

But despite their victory and their discipline, the Houthis’ long-term prospects may have become murkier after Saleh’s death. They have now lost their political cover. Without the GPC, it will become increasingly difficult for the Houthis to maintain the fiction that they are not an Iranian proxy. One option for them to shore up legitimacy is to reach a new power-sharing accord with al-Islah, Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, although whether al-Islah would agree to such a partnership, and what they would ask for in return, remains an open question.

Past misgivings aside, for a very brief period this week, many Yemenis hedged their bets on Saleh as the one man who could put a stop to the Houthis and potentially end the conflict.  Now that he is gone, Yemenis are bracing for a period of Houthi dominance. Yemen’s fate has become more uncertain than ever, now that Yemenis lost their favorite man whom they loved to hate.