A nervous tension descended over the meeting room in the main presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen's capital, one Sunday last September.
At first, the local press pack was energized by news of a peace deal between a Shia rebel group known as the Houthis and the Yemeni government after several days of heavy fighting in the capital. Reporters rushed to their feet, cameras at the ready each time a new face entered the room. Their excitement peaked when, after a five-hour wait, the Houthi delegation arrived through a set of double doors.
But they had not come to sign the deal. They were simply lost.
The Houthis had just arrived on a flight from Sadah, the Houthis' northern stronghold. As they wandered off, one of the Houthi negotiators, Hussein al-Izzi, waved to some people he knew.
Representatives of Yemen's political class eventually arrived, arranging themselves around a long wooden conference table. An hour passed. Initial cheer and bonhomie turned brittle when talk turned to the Houthis' seizure of the defense ministry headquarters in central Sanaa. The military was melting away or defecting to the Houthis' cause. Mohammed Basindwah, the prime minister, had resigned; the government no longer had a mandate. A vacuum was forming.
In Yemen, al Qaeda's greatest enemy is not America's friend. Read more here.
The dull thump of artillery could be heard as fighting raged outside the palace walls. A rumor passed through the room that the interior ministry had told security forces in Sanaa to cooperate with the Houthis. People inevitably began to whisper: Was this a coup?
"If there is no deal," said one of the men at the table, "it will be a disaster."
The tension was finally eased at about 8pm, when Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi entered the room flanked by the Houthi's compact representatives, al-Izzi and Mahdi Al-Mashat. Accompanying the men was Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen who had for much of the previous week and a half been working to broker a peace deal.
An agreement had been made. Silence was slowly descending upon the city, the quiet tangible in the air after days of relentless shelling and gunfire. Al-Mashat signed the deal, which included a section detailing requirements for the Houthis' withdrawal from Sanaa. Al-Izzi signed the body of the deal, but quibbled with his colleague over the terms of withdrawal. Captured by television crews and photographers jostling for position, al-Izzi refused to endorse it. He had reservations about the text, he said, and would sign off only when they had been addressed.
The Houthis certainly seem to think that they are in a dominant position, and now they are eyeing areas upon which the government has never been able to impose its will.
Not that it made a difference, because in reality the Houthis had no plans to withdraw from Sanaa. As al-Izzi knew, the fighting outside the palace had not stopped because the deal was being signed; silence was falling around the capital because the Houthis, backed by Yemen's wily former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, had won the fight and taken control of the capital. And, as a leading member of the Houthi politburo in Sanaa had told me earlier in the year, "Whoever controls Sanaa controls Yemen."
Last month Houthi control of the fragile Arab state intensified. Incensed by what they thought was a plot to rush a freshly drafted constitution through to a referendum, the Houthis returned to the presidential palace, this time seizing it by force. The next day, they secured president Hadi's private residence before effectively placing the entire Yemeni government under house arrest.
The maneuver proved one indignity too many for Hadi, who had become an increasingly marginal and unpopular figure following the Houthi takeover. Hadi joined his cabinet in announcing his resignation on January 22. On February 6, the Houthis broke from UN-mediated talks over a new power-sharing agreement to announce that a "Revolutionary Committee" of their choosing would run the country until a presidential council could be formed to steer Yemen toward elections. They placed Mohamed al-Houthi, the half-brother of the Houthi leader, Abdelmalek, at the head of the committee, making him de facto head of state.
Earlier today, the US announced it was closing its Yemen embassy due to increasing security concerns.
* * *
After months of relentless activity, Yemen's "slow-burning coup" is nearing the endgame. But what Abdelmalek al-Houthi calls a "people's revolution" could well be short-lived.
The Houthis comprise a revivalist movement of the Zaydi form of Shia Islam largely unique to northern Yemen, and they've undergone an astonishing reversal of fortune over the past decade. But their path to power has been littered with bad faith, broken promises, and an increasingly visible disconnect between a rhetoric of bipartisanship and the reality of brutal suppression of critical voices.
Now, the Houthis are getting greedy. The September 2014 deal gave the group everything they historically could have hoped for. Members of their political wing, a relatively liberal group made up of intellectuals rather than fighters, readily acknowledged this to me at the time. But the Houthis' military wing, in a position of dominance for the first time, could not resist pushing for more. By doing so, they have placed the final nail in the coffin of a political transition process that gave the Houthis a voice for the first time. And they have risked bringing Yemen, a fragile state on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, to the brink of collapse.
The Houthis, who control what is Yemen's most powerful militia — after looting a series of military facilities, it probably has a bigger arsenal than the Yemeni military — are generally seen by outsiders as being a product of Yemen's culture of negotiation at gunpoint. But, says Nadwa al-Dawsari, a US-based Yemeni expert on tribal culture, that is far from the truth. The Houthis, she reckons, are upsetting the people who they need the most: Yemen's tribes.
"Traditionally, the tribes always try to avoid confrontation or violence because they know that can spark into war," al-Dawsari says. "They rely on negotiation and containment…. Normally people will step in to stop the violence, with a yearlong ceasefire."
By contrast, the Houthis, she says, "tend to be violent. Even when they negotiate, they tend to jump to using violence. The tribes use an honor code; to be an honorable tribe you admit wrong-doing and avoid using violence as a tool. That's where the Houthis differ…. They also tend to create crises to avoid having to honor their commitments."
The Houthis have an impressive track record of brokering and then breaking deals while accusing their counterparts of acting in bad faith. The September deal, known in Yemen as the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, is a case in point. The accord granted the Houthis political power in exchange for a complete withdrawal of their militias from the capital. Two days after it was signed, Abdelmalek al-Houthi was broadcast on big-screen televisions in central Sanaa calmly announcing that the group's Popular Committees — loosely organized security forces — would stay put until Yemen's deeply entrenched al Qaeda franchise had been defeated.
Crowds in Sanaa's Tahrir Square watch Abdelmalek al-Houthi's address in September.
Houthi officials would later claim that this technically didn't violate the terms of the peace agreement because the committees were made up of local volunteers rather than the Houthis' own fighters, something diplomats and political figures in Sanaa found laughable.
* * *
Yemen's most recent crisis was precipitated by fears among the Houthis that Hadi planned on sneaking through a plan to divide Yemen into six federal units, a move they believe would be aimed at isolating them politically by leaving their stronghold, the northern province of Sadah, effectively landlocked. Yet the text of the draft constitution, which I have seen, contains only tangential references to the number and shape of the regions. In addition, in the days before Houthi militias seized the presidential palace and Hadi's home, the president had offered the Houthis a big say in redrafting the constitution.
For many in Yemen, the Houthis' aggressive response seemed like a convenient excuse for another incremental step toward total control of the state. Since the announcement, their people have been consolidating control of key ministries. Al-Izzi, one of the principal brokers of the September deal, is now deputy head of the ministry of foreign affairs, while Houthi military commanders have set up their own command and control center inside the defense ministry.
Yemeni special forces rescue eight hostages from al Qaeda in US-backed raid. Read more here.
When I tell Hussein al-Bokhaiti, a pro-Houthi activist, that many Yemenis think the Houthis have repeatedly acted in bad faith, he argues that they have "never broken any agreement." In his view, the current turmoil in Yemen stems from a failure on the part of Hadi to form a new, more inclusive government after a series of peace talks that drew to a close in January 2014, and in which the Houthis participated. There is some truth to what he says: Hadi was hardly a model of transparency and developed some worryingly autocratic tendencies during his last year in office, ignoring a number of agreements made during the peace talks while he tried to cement his own grip on power.
The Houthis pose what Peter Krause, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College and an expert on Middle East peace deals, calls a "commitment problem" — common in countries like Yemen where a number of different groups are vying for control but no one group holds a great deal of power.
"You and I come to the table; you give something up and I give something up," he explains. "The problem is, what's to stop me from taking what you offer and then go back to fighting once I've got it, now from an even stronger position? Another problem is that parties often think they are stronger than they are. You fight if you feel you are going to be better served that way."
Armed groups like the Houthis often realize that their position is not as strong as they thought only when they start losing the fight. The Houthis certainly seem to think that they are in a dominant position, and now they are eyeing areas upon which the government has never been able to impose its will. Most notable is the central province of Mareb, home to some of the country's biggest oil and gas fields, and the power plants that provide much of Yemen's electricity. It is Mareb that could prove the Houthis' undoing.
"The tribes have always been autonomous, but they have always had a good relationship with the state," al-Dawsari, the tribal expert, says. "At the same time, these are people who have control over their areas and will fight to maintain that control. Particularly in Mareb, because it is not just an issue of control over area, but also resources."
The Mareb tribes' antipathy toward the Houthis is even deeper because of their distinct and clashing historical identities. The Houthis follow the Zaydi form of Shia Islam, while the Mareb tribes have historically followed the Sunni Shafei'i school. More important than doctrinal rivalry, though, is the fact that Zaydis ruled north Yemen for the better part of a millennium before a 1962 revolution. While they did, they tried (with limited success) to bend restive tribes in Mareb to their will.
Al-Dawsari is in close contact with the tribes in Mareb and neighboring provinces, and she says that they have been steeling themselves for a fight with the Houthis for some time. "There has been a lot of preparation," she says. "Some tribes are even working with al Qaeda. They will not give up their areas to Houthis."
The VICE News documentary 'Yemen: A Failed State'
Meanwhile, the Houthis are already learning that, for all their military prowess, there is a big difference between taking territory and holding it. Al Beydah, a province in central Yemen, which I visited in late November, has long been seen as a hotbed of al Qaeda activity. When I traveled there, the Houthis were trumpeting their successes; they took me to a village that had previously functioned as the main al Qaeda outpost in the region. But the Houthis have been unable to secure the area, and fighting has intensified with tribal groups and al Qaeda affiliates in recent months; Houthis are reportedly losing dozens of fighters a week.
The Houthis are also losing the support of the man many in Yemen believe has made their precipitous rise possible: Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose tribal and military loyalists have eased the Houthis' path and have often fought on their behalf. Saleh's political party, the General People's Congress, has publicly rejected the plan for Mohammed al-Houthi to take the reins in Sanaa, and I am told that Saleh is planning his own campaign to cut the Houthis down to size and install his own people in the capital.
Krause believes that if the Houthis can't learn to play nice and cut deals they actually honor, they will face the same problem faced by successive regimes in Kabul.
"Nobody in recent years has been able to hold Kabul and the entirety of Afghanistan," he says. "Whenever someone seizes Kabul, they often overreach and fail to make power-sharing deals that reflect the balance of power on the ground, while other groups form coalitions and balance against them. Many groups have had their chance to grab the brass ring, but they don't effectively negotiate or make a deal. And ultimately, they lose."
Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco