Thousands of the former president’s supporters demonstrated in Yemen’s capital on the 35th anniversary of the foundation of the General People’s Congress (GPC), holding posters and pictures of Saleh. The looming threat of a state of emergency and violent retaliation by the Houthi militias was of little deterrence.
The 2014 pact between the two former enemies, which precipitated Yemen’s descent into chaos, seems now to have reached breaking point. The Houthi leadership points the finger at Saleh for trying to sell them out to the Arab coalition, while Saleh’s GPC factions blame the militia’s Revolutionary Committees for the mess in the capital and the wider north.
The deterioration of this relationship comes as no surprise. It was a purely tactical agreement with an implicit expiry date. Saleh’s survival instincts and goal of recovering his clan’s grip on the north led him to open the gates of Sanaa to the Houthi militias, in order to undermine the transition process and the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Driven by the ambition to revive Zaydi northern dominance, emboldened by Iranian backing, and taking advantage of a fragile equilibrium, the Houthis used their opposition to the federation plans as a pretext to pursue broader goals, including strategic access to the Red Sea.
It was always a mistake to believe that Saleh’s Zaydi background would translate into any kind of ideological affinity with the Houthi leadership. Contrary to Saleh’s cold pragmatism, the Houthis are religiously militant and follow a specific brand of Zaydism, heavily influenced by revolutionary Khomeinism and with substantial differences to other Zaydi traditions.
It should come as no surprise that this sordid marriage of convenience has hit the rocks, and the rift will encourage diplomatic efforts to end Yemen’s conflict.
This pact was in for a bumpy ride from the start. Five months after taking over Sanaa, the Houthi leadership unilaterally announced the dissolution of Yemen’s Parliament and the formation of an interim government. This move could not have gone down well among the many members of the ruling GPC still loyal to Saleh and who had long dominated in Parliament.
Two months later, the former president called on the Houthi leadership to accept the UN peace plan, involving a Houthi withdrawal from the areas seized by the militia since the beginning of the present conflict. Occasional, small-scale skirmishes between pro-Saleh tribal elements and Houthi militias were also registered.
Then Saleh approached the Saudi leadership with a proposal to turn on the Houthis in exchange for various concessions. Unsurprisingly, his proposal was rejected, but the Houthi leadership inevitably took note and later made their own demarches toward negotiations that excluded the former president.
Things went from bad to worse when Saleh and the Houthi leadership announced the formation of a joint government in the summer of 2016, ironically called the National Salvation Government. This made it all but impossible to disguise their deep divergences, as the rivalry between both sides for influence, funds and allies intensified. In the past few months, Saleh and his supporters have grown increasingly angry at the Houthis’ efforts to sideline them.
Could the collapse of this pact be the beginning of the end of the conflict? It surely offers some hope. Without the support of Saleh’s forces, the Houthis become far more vulnerable, politically and militarily. The Zaydi militias’ radicalism and total unpreparedness to govern has severely damaged their popularity and they would not have been able to take over Sanaa, let alone wreak havoc across the whole country, without the support from security and military units loyal to the former president.
In his speech in Al-Sabeen Square, Saleh stated his side’s readiness “to provide the vanguard with thousands of fighters, ready to go at a moment.” This has been interpreted as a warning to all sides, Houthis and all the forces (Arab coalition, Hadi supporters and southern forces) involved in the conflict, that he is still the decisive player he once was.
But it is also possible that, despite the appearances, Saleh’s latest move came from a position of weakness. Plus, it remains virtually impossible to determine whether the loyalties of various army units lie with the former president, the Houthis or whoever is considered to have better chances of succeeding.
In the long-term and if confirmed, the breakup of the pact that broke Yemen will almost certainly be good news for the diplomatic efforts to find a negotiated solution to the conflict. Yet if the rift between Saleh’s camp and the Houthi leadership develops into armed conflict, the already dramatic humanitarian situation is likely to get worse before any progress is made.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida