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Political Compromise Proving Difficult in Yemen

Houthi Shiite Yemenis wearing army uniforms chant slogans during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 4, 2015.
Houthi Shiite Yemenis wearing army uniforms chant slogans during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 4, 2015.

As Yemen struggles with major political instability following the ouster of the former president, the minority Houthis are threatening to take power themselves unless a suitable interim governance plan is put in place.

Yemen’s feuding main political parties have sharp differences over the concept and the makeup of a presidential council, according to Muhammad al Basha, a spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in Washington.

“There is the problem with the number of representatives in the council and how long the council will stay in power and what are the priorities for the council.” Basha said.

United Nations envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar is encountering stiff opposition in his effort to establish a council to administer the country during a transitional period.

The country has been effectively leaderless since Houthi rebels forced the resignation of former president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi last month.

The Yemeni spokesman said that the political council idea is also rejected by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which backs the Western-supported Hadi.

Economic collapse

Basha predicts that the Yemeni economy would collapse without the financial aid provided by neighboring Saudi Arabia. He said the country would become a failed state the day it was unable to pay salaries to its public service employees.

The economic collapse would not be averted by international aid, Basha said.

“Because the donor countries withheld two thirds of their promised pledges waiting to see where the situation in Yemen is heading,” he said.

Basha said that the increasing influence of the Houthis could backfire, helping al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula recruit more fighters from Yemeni tribes who have traditionally fought against the Iran-backed Houthis.

This, he said, could create another self-styled militant group like the Islamic State on Saudi Arabia’s border.

But Peter Salisbury, a veteran journalist based in Yemen said Saudi Arabia would not be willing to pour more money into Yemen if it is controlled by the Houthis.

“Saudi position is: let it happen; we can pay the price of a collapsing Yemeni economy because the Houthis will pay the political price of that collapse,” Salisbury said

But Charles Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University, said that Iran has provided the finances needed for the Houthis to gain control.

Schmitz and some other regional experts say that the conflict in Yemen is not a sectarian clash between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Instead, they describe it as a political crisis stemming from the failure of the transitional government and mistrust among different Yemeni coalitions.

The Houthis’ most significant mistake has been the failure to properly govern the northern region they control, Schmitz said.

Schmitz said there is threat of civil war in Yemen as military forces from at least three factions are amassing on Yemen eastern front. The fighters includes Houthis and fighters from the conservative Islamist forces loyal to military general Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar of the Islah Party backed by the Saudis.

Joining too in the fight are tribal forces that populate the east.

“If that comes to a war, we are looking at a big civil war and the key is that oil is out there. If it is a military one, the Houthis will win the initial battle but they will lose the war and there will be a lot of blood for Yemen,” Schmitz said.

But embassy spokesman Basha said political parties remain interested in a political solution because they realize nobody will win if military conflict erupts.

The hard part, however, is getting all parties to some sort of a consensus, he said.