TIME world affairs

Why I Miss Yemen

yemen-sanaa-yemeni-flag
Getty Images

Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

Though the Yemeni government may fail to reconstruct itself, the ties that bind people to one another can step in for the greater cause

I miss Yemen.

That may come as a surprise since whenever the country makes headlines — as it has over the past few weeks — the overwhelming themes are war, violent radicalism, the impending doom of failed statehood and whatever other ominous sounding crisis (water shortages, national drug addiction) can be thrown into the mix.

I find that most Americans assume that the country is seething with anti-American sentiment. Yet, that is far from the truth, and I miss Yemen, my home from 2009 to early 2012. I’m not alone. Most foreigners who have been fortunate enough to experience the warmth, humor and kindness of Yemeni people miss it too.

I miss waking up in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen’s 3,000 year old capital. I would slowly make my way across uneven stone floors that cooled the soles of my feet and into my mafraj, a square room with blue-patterned low cushions lining its perimeter. I would take a moment to stare out into the narrow alleyway below through a green, blue, and red stained glass window, the kind that decorate nearly every building in Sanaa.

I lived on the top floor of a skinny, four-story, brown brick abode with white gypsum outlining its edges. Many have likened these structures in the old city to gingerbread houses. Out the window, I saw men walking to work, elbows linked, donned in long white robes that hung to their ankles, suit jackets, and a curved dagger secured right at their waistline. There were also the elderly women draped in red and blue intricately patterned blankets overtop their black abayas and carrying puffy loaves of bread in clear plastic bags. They’d chat so quickly in clipped sharp Arabic that I could never understand them—even though I’m comfortable in the language. My ears would then catch the sound of the gas merchant who strolled the neighborhood banging with a wrench on a large cooking gas canister. The harsh dinging warmed me in the same way the sounds of Manhattan must warm someone who’s happy to call that city home.

At about 8 am, I would make my way down the incongruent steps of the house and past the doors of apartments where other foreigners lived, and then I’d pull a small metal lever that opened the heavy wooden slab on the ground floor to the outside world. The sun would be strong and the air bone dry at 7,500 feet. I would walk the 10 steps or so to a hole-in-the-wall canteen, a Yemeni bodega, known here as a bagala, and buy a tub of plain yogurt for about 50 American cents that I would mix with Yemeni honey (some of the best in the world!) for breakfast. This was in lieu of the typical Yemeni breakfast of lamb kabob sandwiches or stewed fava beans. The two young guys at the bagala would light up upon our daily meetings.

“Good morning, Laura!” they’d say.

“Good morning! How’s it going?”

“Praise be to God! Did you watch the president’s speech?” Mohamed, the older, would ask, or otherwise comment on the political happenings du jour, which were many since part of my time living in Sanaa covered the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

“I did. What do you think?” I would ask.

“Everything will be fine, God willing. We want stability for Yemen,” he’d answer. Then another friend whose face I recognized from the neighborhood would rush up, give me a nod, and shove approximately 10 cents at Mohamed so he could bring back piles of pita bread for his family.

I would head back home, comforted to know that if anything ill ever befell me, these friends would have my back, as happened when they cornered a cab driver who was requesting $200 to give me back the phone that I had left in his taxi (I got it back free, thanks to my neighbors). You give Yemenis a smile, and they give you so much more in return, always bending over backwards for guests of their country. It was an unfair transaction that benefited me most of all.

I miss walking through the narrow cobblestone streets of the old city and seeing faces I recognized. We waved hello along the way, and perhaps shared a sentence or two about the day. My mood always brightened when I passed the old men who sipped creamy tea sitting outside one tiny cafe, who wore thick glasses that magnified their eyes, turbans round their heads, and held canes in their hands. They laughed and told jokes to pass their days. They’d seen it all—including war worse than the current one. They knew the ebbs and flows of time.

Despite that one greedy cabbie who tried to keep my phone, one of the things I miss most of all are the discussions with taxi drivers, waiting stalled in traffic due to the post-lunch market rush. Yemenis love to talk—and so do I. They often gave me a handful of soft green qat leaves, the mild narcotic widely consumed in the country. I remember when one driver explained that Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh was like Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat cake!” the driver exclaimed.

A different cab driver once told me he had worked at the Yemeni embassy in Cuba as a driver and missed the rum like you wouldn’t believe. Alcohol is available in Yemen, at Chinese restaurants that double as brothels, or from Ethiopian smugglers who get their bottles on boats from Djibouti. Of course, getting it involves risks—the social shame of being caught with alcohol for an average Yemeni would be damning not only of his reputation, but of his family and his tribe. I took that taxi driver’s number and the next time I left a diplomat’s party in the fancy part of town where sheikhs and foreigners live behind tall walls, I called him to pick me up. I snuck him a beer, which he uncapped with his teeth and drank during our drive back to the old city.

There are things I don’t miss, like the lack of electricity. Or wading through a foot high of muddy, trash-strewn water because the drainage system wasn’t working fast enough for the rainstorm. I certainly don’t miss needing to flee my home in the old city because the war came too close in September 2011, when Yemen’s divided armed forces began to fight one another. I didn’t want to live alone when random artillery fire had fallen nearby. And then there was the gnawing guilt that came with remembering that my suffering was nothing compared to Yemenis who couldn’t afford a generator or the rising prices for basic goods, and who didn’t have another home to which they could flee. But the good always outweighed the bad for me in Yemen, and that’s why I stayed for nearly three years. I left when I realized that reporting during wartime, being so close to explosions, death and violence, had clouded my thoughts so that I was incapable of making safe decisions.

As the country, now leaderless, fractures with little hope of reconciliation, I watch with a breaking heart. Yet, I am confident in this: if the Yemeni government fails to restructure itself into a sustainable organization, and rather continues to mirror a scenario from an apocalyptic future, Yemen will not be a land where every man is for himself. There is a social contract in Yemen more ancient than the one that exists in the United States, and the ties that bind people to one another can step in when the government fails. As an outsider who was fortunate enough to have called Yemen home, I put my hope in that.

Laura Kasinof is an author and freelance journalist. Her book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets: an Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen, is about her time reporting for The New York Times during Yemen’s Arab Spring. She wrote this article for Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Yemen

Former Yemen President Flees Capital After Rebels Let Him Go

Houthi fighters ride a patrol vehicle outside a hotel hosting U.N.-sponsored negotiations on a political settlement for Yemen's crisis in Sanaa, Feb. 19, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah—Reuters Houthi fighters ride a patrol vehicle outside a hotel hosting U.N.-sponsored negotiations on a political settlement for Yemen's crisis in Sanaa, Feb. 19, 2015.

Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had been under house arrest for several weeks

(SANAA, Yemen) — Yemen’s former president left the capital after Shiite rebels who surrounded his house let him go under international and local pressure, aides close to him said Saturday.

The aides said former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi left Sanaa and later arrived in Aden. They say Hadi later plans to leave the country to receive medical treatment.

Hadi has been under house arrest for several weeks following a coup by Shiite Houthi rebels. The rebels earlier captured the capital, Sanaa, in September.

The aides say the rebels let Hadi go after pressure from the United Nations, the U.S., Russia and local political parties.

The aides spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to speak to journalists.

Witnesses said Houthis and others in the area later ransacked Hadi’s house and at least three people were seen each taking out a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the house.

Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, said Friday that rival factions, including the Houthis, have agreed on a new legislative body consisting of former and new lawmakers to serve during the country’s upcoming transition period.

But a coalition of Yemeni parties voiced objections to the plan, describing it as an insufficient half-solution.

Ahmed Lakaz, spokesman of the Unionist Gathering Party, which is taking part in the dialogue, said the parties told the Houthis that they would be out of the process if Hadi was not freed.

Yemen has been locked in a political crisis since the Houthi rebels took over the capital and eventually forced the resignation of the elected Western-backed president and dissolved the parliament while keeping Hadi under house arrest.

The political crisis cast also doubts on the United States’ ability to continue its counter-terrorism operations, especially with loss of Hadi, a strong U.S. ally.

However, the U.S. has continued to target al-Qaida’s branch in Yemen, known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, with drone strikes. Tribal sources said Friday that two suspected al-Qaida members were killed in a drone strike in the southern province of Shabwa.

Meanwhile Saturday, Houthis tried to storm a special forces base outside the capital, exchanging fire with troops there, most of whom are loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The fighting killed three people, security officials said.

Saleh’s aides say he considers the base key to his survival and would never allow it to fall under Houthi control, unlike most of Sanaa’s other military installations, which are already in the rebels’ hands. Those aides spoke on condition of anonymity as Saleh had not authorized them to speak to reporters.

Thousands also marched Saturday in support of Hadi in southern Ibb province, where they urged the Houthis to leave the region and halt their interference in local affairs. Houthis opened fire, killing one demonstrator and wounding two, said security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they weren’t authorized to talk to journalists.

TIME Yemen

U.N. Security Council Orders Rebels in Yemen to Retreat

U.N. Security Council votes in favor of a resolution demanding the Houthi militia's withdrawal from Yemeni government institutions, at the U.N. headquarters in New York
Mike Segar—Reuters The U.N. Security Council votes in favor of a resolution demanding the Houthi militia's withdrawal from Yemeni government institutions during a meeting at the U.N. headquarters in New York City on Feb. 15, 2015

The council also demanded the release of the Yemeni President and Prime Minister

The U.N. Security Council on Sunday ordered the immediate withdrawal of rebel forces from government institutions in Yemen, warning of “further steps” if insurgents do not cease hostilities in the Middle Eastern nation.

The demand was part of a British- and Jordanian-drafted resolution adopted unanimously by the 15-member council, Reuters reports.

The resolution “deplores actions taken by Houthis to dissolve parliament and take over Yemen’s government institutions, including acts of violence,” referring to the Iranian-backed Shi‘ite Muslim militia that has overthrown the government and prompted increasing attacks from al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups.

Besides the withdrawal, the resolution also calls on Houthi forces to come to the negotiating table for a U.N.-brokered political settlement and release the Yemeni President, Prime Minister and other Cabinet members from house arrest.

[Reuters]

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Feb. 6 – Feb. 13

From the Ukrainian peace plan to Brazil’s worsening drought and the disarmament of South Sudan’s child soldiers to a sex-free Valentine’s Day in Bangkok, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Yemen

U.N. Chief Warns Yemen ‘Collapsing’ as al-Qaeda Group Makes Gains

APTOPIX Mideast Yemen
Anees Mahyoub—AP Protesters in Taiz, Yemen, on Feb. 11, 2015, shout slogans against Houthi Shi‘ite who have seized power in the country's capital, Sana‘a

Secretary general Ban Ki-moon issued the warning after rebel faction effectively ousted the Yemeni government

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that Yemen was “collapsing before our eyes,” as a powerful al-Qaeda affiliate took advantage of the power vacuum in the country’s capital to seize a Yemeni army facility.

Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation, has been rocked by sectarian and political violence that came to a head last week, when the Houthi rebels that recently toppled the country’s President dissolved parliament.

On Wednesday, thousands of people in Sana‘a, the capital, protested the effective coup by the predominantly Shi‘ite group, and the U.S., Britain and France all closed their embassies amid security concerns.

As if to highlight the potential for turmoil, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful al-Qaeda branch that controls large swaths of territory in the southeast, said Thursday that they had seized the headquarters of a Yemeni army brigade, the New York Times reports. While the Houthis are strongly opposed to the Sunni extremist group, the rudderless government in Sana‘a has risked empowering AQAP.

“Let me be clear,” Ban said. “Yemen is collapsing before our eyes. We cannot stand by and watch.”

The Houthi movement, which overran Sana‘a in September, had been overseeing talks among various factions to form a new government since the group’s aggression prompted President Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi to resign last month. But the group disbanded the government on Feb. 6.

Ban called for Security Council members to de-escalate tensions and return the factions to the negotiating table. “We must do everything possible to help Yemen step back from the brink and get the political process back on track,” he said.

TIME

Morning Must Reads: February 11

Capitol
Mark Wilson—Getty Images The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Fake Newsman, Real News

Jon Stewart, the comedian turned faux newsman who transformed The Daily Show into a cultural powerhouse, is leaving the show later this year. It’s a sad day for anyone who cares about news — fake or otherwise — writes TIME’s Jim Poniewozik

Brian Williams Suspended

NBC said on Tuesday that the Nightly News anchor had been suspended as managing editor and anchor for six months without pay

Obama Honors Kayla Mueller

President pays tribute to the young American aid worker whose death while being held captive by ISIS was confirmed on Tuesday

SpaceX Launch Canceled Over High Winds

SpaceX called off its sunset launch with just 12 minutes remaining in the countdown because of gusts of 115 m.p.h. several miles up — strong enough to damage the rocket in flight. It was the private company’s second attempt in three days to launch the spacecraft

U.S. Closes Embassy in Yemen

The State Department confirmed late Tuesday that it has closed the U.S. embassy in Yemen and evacuated its staff because of the political crisis and security concerns following the takeover of much of the country by Shi’ite rebels

Yankees Slugger A-Rod Apologizes for Misconduct

Alex Rodriguez apologized to New York Yankees top executives on Tuesday, ahead of his return to professional baseball after a yearlong suspension for steroid use. The Yankees and Rodriguez issued a joint statement on Tuesday

Puerto Rico Could Soon Fine Parents of Obese Kids

Parents in Puerto Rico may soon be fined up to $800 if their children are obese, if a bill currently being debated in the legislature is implemented. Puerto Rican Senator Gilberto Rodríguez said the bill is aimed at improving children’s health

White House Stays Mum on Obama’s Gay-Marriage Views

The White House wouldn’t say definitively Tuesday whether President Barack Obama misled the country about his true feelings on gay marriage during his first presidential campaign, as his former longtime political strategist David Axelrod charges in a new book

Australia Foils ISIS-Inspired Terrorist Plot

Australian counterterrorism officials say they have foiled an imminent terrorist attack after the arrest of two men at a house in western Sydney. Police say a homemade ISIS flag was recovered, as well as a machete and a hunting knife

WWE Star Seth Rollins Apologizes for Nude-Photos Leak

WWE star Seth Rollins took to Twitter on Monday evening to apologize for nude photos that appeared on numerous of his social-media accounts and, because of automatic updates, wound up on the official WWE website

Tokyo Bars Japanese Reporter From Visiting Syria

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered a journalist to surrender his passport after learning last week that he planned to travel to Syria later this month. The action was based on a law that allows the government to take citizens’ passport if it would protect their lives

TV Rights to Top English Soccer Sold for $7.84 Billion

England’s top-flight soccer competition, already one of the richest and most-watched sports leagues in the world, is now much richer. The Premier League has auctioned off broadcast rights to its games for the equivalent of $7.84 billion

Get TIME’s The Brief e-mail every morning in your inbox

TIME Yemen

U.S. Closes Embassy in Yemen Amid Continued Unrest

Yemenis hold a rally to protest against Houthi Shiite rebels, who took over the government of Yemen and installed a new committee to govern, in Taiz, Yemen, Feb. 7, 2015
Anees Mahyoub—AP Yemenis hold a rally to protest against Houthi Shi'ite rebels, who took over the government of Yemen and installed a new committee to govern, in Taiz, Yemen, on Feb. 7, 2015

U.S. embassy in Yemen has been suspended and staff relocated

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — The State Department confirmed late Tuesday that it has closed the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and evacuated its staff because of the political crisis and security concerns following the takeover of much of the country by Shiite rebels.

The department announced it had suspended operations at the embassy in Sanaa and relocated its remaining diplomatic personnel “due to the ongoing political instability and the uncertain security situation.” The embassy had been operating with only a skeleton staff for some weeks amid deteriorating conditions.

Yemen has been in crisis for months, with Iran-linked Shiite Houthi rebels besieging the capital and then taking control. Earlier Tuesday, U.S. officials said the embassy closure would not affect counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida’s Yemen branch.

“The United States remains firmly committed to supporting all Yemenis who continue to work toward a peaceful, prosperous and unified Yemen,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “We will explore options for a return to Sanaa when the situation on the ground improves.”

The State Department also issued a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and urging U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart.

Two U.S. officials said Marines providing the security at the embassy will also likely leave, but American forces conducting counterterrorism missions against al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate in other parts of the country would not be affected. The U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the closure publicly on the record.

Although operations against al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate will continue, the closure of the embassy will be seen as a blow to the Obama administration, which has held up its partnership with ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government as a model for his strategy in combatting terrorism, particularly in unstable countries.

“Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability,” President Barack Obama said late last month as conditions in the capital of Sanaa became worse. “What I’ve said is, is that our efforts to go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without an occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government, is the approach that we’re going to need to take.”

The embassy closure will also complicate the CIA’s operations in Yemen, U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge. Although CIA officers could continue to work out of U.S. military installations, many intelligence operations are run from embassies, and the CIA lost visibility on Syria when that embassy was evacuated in 2012. The CIA’s main role in Yemen is to gather intelligence about members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and occasionally kill them with drone strikes. Both the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command run separate drone killing programs in Yemen, though the CIA has conducted the majority of the strikes, U.S. officials have said.

There were 23 U.S. drone strikes reported in Yemen last year, 26 in 2013 and 41 in 2012, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks them through media reports.

The Houthis last week dissolved parliament and formally took over after months of clashes. They then placed President Hadi and his Cabinet ministers under house arrest. Hadi and the ministers later resigned in protest.

Earlier Tuesday, Yemeni military officials said the Houthis, aided by troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, took full control of the key central province of Bayda province.

Bayda is the gateway to the country’s south, which remains in the hands of pro-independence southerners and to the strategic oil-rich Maarib province, to the east, also still not in rebel hands.

The U.S. Embassy in Yemen is the third in an Arab country that has closed since the turmoil of the Arab spring began in December 2010. The other two were embassies in Damascus, Syria and Tripoli, Libya. The embassy in Damascus was closed in Feb 2012 and the embassy in Tripoli was closed in July 2014.

The embassy in Yemen was operating with only a small portion of its usual diplomatic staff and had closed to the public for all but emergency services in January. It had been operating with reduced manpower since September 2014, when the State Department ordered all non-essential personnel to leave the country.

In May, 2014 the embassy in Sanaa was closed for several weeks due to heightened security threats.

TIME Economy

5 Plunging Numbers That Explain the World This Week

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras looks on before swearing in ceremony of the new deputies that were elected in the January 25 national polls, in Athens, Feb. 5,2015.
Yannis Behrakis—EPA Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens, Feb. 5,2015.

From Greek bond rates to Indonesian approval numbers, these figures tell the story of an unstable world

With spiraling oil prices, crumbling economies, weakened leaders, and intensifying violence in Ukraine and the Middle East, we’re experiencing unusual volatility in markets and geopolitics. Here are five falling numbers that have broad-reaching implications.

1. Down to 1.38%

There’s a huge difference between the current Greek crisis and previous cycles of panic: today bond markets are treating the Greek economy as an isolated patient, swatting away notions of contagion risk to other periphery countries. The numbers tell the story. In the wake of the anti-austerity party Syriza’s victory in Greek elections last month, Spain’s 10-year yield fell to new record-breaking lows, closing at a staggering 1.38% at one point last week. That means Spain can borrow at better rates than the thriving United States. Compare that to Greece’s 10-year yield, which shot above 11% in the days after Syriza took office.

(Source: Eurasia Group, Bloomberg Business: Spain, Greece)

2. -30% Approval

Expectations for Indonesia’s new president Joko Widodo were sky-high when he was elected last summer. (He even graced the cover of this publication in October with the headline “A New Hope.”) But his recent nominee for police chief is a former aide to party powerbroker and ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, raising concerns about her influence over the supposedly independent Joko. Just days after the announcement, police chief nominee was named as a suspect in a corruption probe. Joko’s decision to trim fuel subsidies in November was lauded by investors; after all, between 2009 and 2013, Indonesia spent more on such subsidies than it did on social welfare programs and infrastructure put together. But it’s no surprise that a hike in fuel prices didn’t go over as well with the general population. According to an opinion poll by LSI, Joko’s approval rating has dropped 30 points—from 72% in August to just 42% in January.

(Source: Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Financial Times)

3. -$58 per barrel

The price of Venezuelan oil collapsed from $96 in September to $38 last month. That’s not a good thing in a country where oil exports provide more than 95% of foreign exchange. Venezuela needs that hard currency—more than 70% of its consumer goods are imported. Things are getting bleaker. The International Monetary Fund predicts an economic contraction this year of as much as 7% of GDP. Inflation is over 60%. And an economic perk is coming under threat: Venezuelans enjoy the world’s cheapest gasoline, paying the heavily subsidized rate of roughly $0.06 per gallon. This provision costs the government more than $12 billion a year. In a recent speech, President Nicolas Maduro declared, “You can crucify me if you want, but there’s a need for us to go to a balanced price.” Given all the economic woes and the President’s tanking approval ratings, it’s definitely not the easiest time to rake back this subsidy.

(Brookings, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, International Business Times)

4. -$500,000,000 in military aid

With ISIS rampaging across Iraq and Syria—and Houthi rebels seizing the capital of Yemen and pushing that country into civil war—Saudi Arabia is accelerating its plans to wall itself off from volatile neighbors. In September, the Saudis began construction on a 600-mile wall along the border with Iraq. To the south, they are strengthening fortifications to keep unwanted visitors from breaching the 1,060-mile border with Yemen. Border guards told a CNN correspondent that in just the last three months, they have stopped 42,000 people from crossing a 500-mile section of the border. It’s not just about security—it’s also economic. As of 2013, Saudi citizens represented just 43% of the country’s workers—and only some 15% of the private sector—with the rest consisting of foreign workers. With youth unemployment at around 40% in Yemen, many try to cross in search of work. But even as the spending spree on security continues, the Saudi Kingdom is halting most of its financial aid for Yemen, fearful it could fall into Houthi hands. According to a Yemeni official, the Saudis recently refused to pay $500 million earmarked for military aid.

(Newsweek, Reuters, Bloomberg, CNN, Al Arabiya News, Reuters, Wall Street Journal)

5. -$61,000,000,000 … and -16%

They’re the group of Russians best equipped to weather hard times, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling the burn. In 2014, the 21 wealthiest people in Russia lost a combined $61 billion—a quarter of their net fortune. Those who aren’t losing money are removing it: 2014’s net outflows by companies and banks topped $150 billion. That’s more than double the 2013 figure, and shatters the old record from ’08, amidst the financial crisis. The IMF expects the Russian economy to contract 3.5% in 2015. At least Russians can express their dismay while drinking more affordable liquor: this week, Moscow passed a new measure cutting the minimum price of a bottle of vodka by 16%.

(Reuters, Businessweek, IMF, Washington Post)

 

TIME Yemen

Yemen’s Rebel Group Disbands Government and Takes Power

Mideast Yemen
Hani Mohammed—AP Houthi Shiite Yemenis hold their weapons during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 4, 2015.

The Houthis' move to seize power could alienate Sunni Muslims and empower al-Qaeda's powerful affiliate in Yemen

The Shi’ite rebel group that controls the Yemeni capital dissolved parliament on Wednesday, bringing to an abrupt and potentially explosive end the political deadlock among rival factions.

The Houthi movement, which overran Sana’a in September, had been overseeing talks to form a new government since the group’s aggression prompted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to resign last month. But with the lapse of a Wednesday deadline, the Houthis moved to act on their own terms.

In a televised statement, the rebels said they would form a five-member presidential council to lead the country during a transitional period of up to two years, proclaiming the developments marked “a new era that will take Yemen to safe shores,” according to the Associated Press.

But the move threatens to plunge the fractured nation deeper into sectarian turmoil. While the Houthis, members of a minority group of Shi‘ite Muslims from the north, have seen a recent surge in support, their power grab risks further alienating Sunni tribesman and empowering al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the powerful affiliate of al-Qaeda that controls swathes of the country’s south.

As TIME reported when tensions spilled over in Sana’a last month, the rise of the Houthi movement and the removal of a key ally in Hadi has posed a particularly acute problem for the U.S. in its fight against al-Qaeda:

For years, the U.S. has struck at AQAP in Yemen with drones and Special Ops, but it has also invested in the Yemeni government to help repel AQAP on the ground, pouring nearly $1 billion of economic, military and humanitarian aid into the country since 2011. That strategy has been hailed as a success by President Barack Obama and was used as a blueprint for the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). But as the government has focused on the Houthi rebellion, AQAP has regained a foothold in southern Yemen. U.S. officials now fear that a prolonged power vacuum in Sana‘a could give AQAP free rein to grow—and to pose new threats to the West.

The Houthis, though, are no friends of the Sunni al-Qaeda militants. The group, which is believed to be backed by the Shi‘ite leadership of Iran, has clashed with al-Qaeda in Yemen and criticized Hadi’s failure to quash Sunni extremism. The problem for the U.S.’s counterterrorism operations is that it also has no interest in an alliance with the U.S.; it has been equally critical of Hadi’s dependence on U.S. support, and it’s motto reads in part, “Death to Israel, Death to America.”

So far, Washington appears to be adapting to developments in Sana’a. A drone strike on Jan. 31 killed a top al-Qaeda cleric, and a senior U.S. official indicated the U.S. maintains intelligence ties with the Houthis. But whether the Houthis can maintain stability and prevent a prolonged sectarian conflict remains to be seen.

TIME Yemen

Yemen’s Shiite Rebels Announce Takeover of Country

Mideast Yemen
Hani Mohammed—AP Houthi Shiite Yemenis hold their weapons during a rally to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Feb. 4, 2015.

Houthi rebels said they are forming a five-member presidential council

(SANAA, Yemen) — Yemen’s powerful Shiite rebels announced on Friday that they have taken over the country and dissolved parliament, a dramatic move that finalizes their months-long power grab.

The development also plunges the impoverished country deeper into turmoil and threatens to turn the crisis into a full-blown sectarian conflict, pitting the Iran-backed Houthi Shiites against Sunni tribesmen and secessionists in the south.

It could also play into the hands of Yemen’s al-Qaida branch, the world’s most dangerous offshoot of the terror group, and jeopardize the U.S. counter-terrorism operations in the country.

In a televised announcement from the Republican Palace in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, the Houthi rebels said they are forming a five-member presidential council that will replace President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for an interim two-year period.

The Houthis also said that “Revolutionary Committee” would be in charge of forming a new parliament with 551 members. The committee is the security and intelligence arm of the rebel group, led by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, relative to the Houthis’ leader, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi.

The statement in Sanaa, read by an unidentified announcer, claimed that it marked “a new era that will take Yemen to safe shores.”

It comes after political parties failed to meet a Houthi-imposed deadline on Wednesday to agree on an acceptable way forward.

Houthis’ rising dominance — which included a raid of the presidential palace and a siege of Hadi’s residence — forced the president and all Cabinet members to submit their resignations in January.

The announcement did not give a timetable for elections and gave no indication on the fate of Hadi.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser