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In Yemen Turmoil, Compromise After Conflict

Shi'ite Yemeni Houthi, wearing army uniforms stand guard on a street leading to the presidential palace in Sana'a, Jan. 21, 2015.
Shi'ite Yemeni Houthi, wearing army uniforms stand guard on a street leading to the presidential palace in Sana'a, Jan. 21, 2015.

A presidential compound in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a seized by a militia, a president's private home surrounded, armed rebel forces in the streets...

"I've heard it called a coup," said regional analyst and researcher Abdulwahab Alkebsi, "but I don't know what a coup looks like in Yemen."

For four months, the Houthi militia has nipped at the symbols of power in the capital in what experts tell VOA was an attempt to gain political ground - but not to overthrow the government. The group strengthened its hold on the capital this week, taking over key government facilities and increasing pressure on President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi before reaching a multi-pronged truce Wednesday.

While speculation ran rampant about what the objectives of this political brinksmanship were, Yemenis and those who research the country monitored news reports and waited. Amid frenetic tweets about the takeover of the Presidential Palace, where Hadi does not live and shots fired in the streets, there was this:

"Anyone who tells you they know where things in Yemen are heading is a liar or a fool," former Sana'a-based journalist Adam Baron posted on Twitter.

Fighting and negotiations

On Wednesday - 48 hours after clashes in the capital of Sana'a killed at least nine people - the Houthis and Hadi were at the negotiating table.

The militia agreed to release the president's Chief of Staff Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak, and withdraw from the presidential compound and residence. Hadi, on his part, committed to a more inclusive government.

A presidential statement also offered a broader vision of unity for a deeply fractured Yemen, noting that Houthis and members of the southern separatist Hirak movement have a right to be appointed in all state institutions.

The militia wasn't interested in total control, Yemen experts tell VOA. They wanted a voice in government. It was a show of power, but not a grab at the reins.

"The Houthi are sort of cleaning up the last of the resistance in their rule in Sana'a but there is a lot of opposition to the Houthi and doing that is going to galvanize it even more," said Charles Schmitz, a Yemen scholar at Towson University in Maryland. "[The Houthis] basically have taken over and I don’t know what they are going to do, but somehow they going to have to make political negotiations with the rest of the country."

Before agreeing Wednesday to withdraw from key government facilities in Sana'a, Houthi militants had tightened their grip on the capital, which they took de facto control of in September.

Controlling capital

"They are definitely using military means, but to accomplish a specific political objective. It seems to me that the political objective is not the complete overtake of Sana'a, let alone all of Yemen. There seems to be consensus that they are unable to run the whole [country]," said Alkebsi, regional director for Africa and the Middle East at the Center for International Private Enterprise.

The militia surrounded the president's and prime minister's homes and offices this week in anger at the possibility of a new, federal system for Yemen, which some feared would weaken their influence.

Schmitz says the Houthis know they cannot unilaterally control the country. With its fissures along geographic, ethnic, and tribal lines, he believes a coalition government is necessary in Yemen.

"They could put a government in but it can have no legitimacy outside the areas of control. And that’s their issue," said Schmitz.

An armed faction of Zaidi Shi'ites but without religious rhetoric, the Houthis "see themselves as a manifestation of a popular revolution in Yemen," explained Alkebsi.

In a televised speech on Tuesday, as Houthis swarmed the presidential complex, militia leader Abdel Malek al-Houthi said his group was seeking to end "corruption and totalitarianism." Al-Houthi accused the U.S.-backed president and the country’s political leaders of placing their interests before the Yemeni people.

The rebel leader held back from ordering the president from office, saying in his broadcast that all he wanted was an agreement on Houthi political demands, which include greater autonomy for their northern region.

Anti-US, Israel

A United Nations envoy has been mediating a unity government since September. But the Houthi use of an anti-United States, anti-Israel motto on their flag does not ingratiate the group with other countries.

Some Yemeni Sunnis view the Houthis as proxies for the Shi'ite government of Iran, an accusation the Houthis deny. They also dispute claims they are linked to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shi'ite who nonetheless battled the Houthis on and off for a decade and whose 30-year rule was brought to an end in Arab Spring protests two years ago.

But the rebels have enjoyed close ties with Iranian-sponsored groups such as Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian Islamist group funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and designated a terror organization by the United States and the European Union. And there have been accusations that Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shia movement, helped to train the Houthis.

The United States stood by Hadi during the crisis, saying he remains the legitimate ruler of Yemen. The U.S. relies heavily on his government in its fight against Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. A key component of that relationship has been Yemen's willingness to allow U.S. drone strikes against AQAP targets.

The Houthi movement is fiercely opposed to AQAP, but it is also against U.S. involvement in Yemen.

“The current crisis is not about al-Qaida, but it does have the strong potential to benefit the group at a cost to the rest of the country, since AQAP thrives off of chaos, violence and increased sectarian strife,” warned the Soufan Group, a New York-based risk consultancy that advises major corporations.

Soufan researchers added in their brief: “While the causes of Yemen’s crisis are intensely local, having to do with longstanding issues of corruption, tribal and North-South differences, and a constitution in need of amending, it is being amplified both by meddling regional actors and a menacing terrorist group with international reach.”

'Lose-lose proposition'

Although the Houthis are a minority in Sunni-majority Yemen, analysts say emphasizing that split is inaccurate when discussing political factions.

"If we frame it as a Shia-Sunni [split] like we did in Iraq, or like we're doing in Syria, it is very, very dangerous," said Alkebsi. "Number one, the Shia and the Sunnis of Yemen are very different than the Shia and the Sunnis elsewhere."

The sects are closer than in other parts of the Muslim world. Mislabeling a political conflict as a religious one is "the best thing we can do for al-Qaida," according to Alkebsi.

"That helps them recruit young men who want to defend Sunnism in Yemen. They want to defend the Sunni sect in the Arab world, and it becomes a religious duty to join al-Qaida and defeat the Houthis," said Alkebsi.

Yemen has been wracked by internal divisions. The Houthi movement has spread beyond its traditional rebellion in the north; separatists continue to press their cause in the south, while tribal loyalties often blur across political lines.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has claimed attacks both at home and abroad, most recently on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this month.

"If this turns into Shia-Sunni battle in Yemen, there's no way to win it," says Alkebsi. "It's a lose-lose proposition."