As battle lines have been drawn in Yemen highlands in between the Houthis (Shiite group organized under Abdel-Malek al-Houthi’s leadership) and the Salafis (Sunni ultra-orthodox group affiliated to al-Islah, Yemen’s most prominent Sunni radical faction), weeks of mounting tensions and bloodshed have left bear the country’s most obvious political crack. Behind Yemen’s new clash of tribes and sectarian tensions, lies the undoing of Yemen two power-houses: Saleh versus al-Ahmar.
Ever since former President Ali Abdullah Saleh rose through the military ranks to finally accede to the presidency in the 1970s, he did so with the tacit approval of al-Ahmar clan, Yemen’s most prominent, influential and powerful Hashid tribal family.
The founder of al-Islah, backed by Saudi Arabia, al-Ahmar moved in the highest spheres of Yemen’s power, in many ways the un-consecrated kings of the republic, a state within the state, Yemen’s political, tribal and financial super-hierarchy.
As the two houses used each other to further assert their hold onto the impoverished nation, Yemen slipped into a state of disarray, its institutions left to decay under nepotism and corruption.
As time went on the central government found itself paralysed under the weight of overlapping authorities and influences, either tribal or political. Power came to be defined by tribal affiliations.
The only republican state in the Peninsula, Yemen’s civil potential was buried under its overbearing tribal tradition, whereby sheikhs could hold politicians at ransom, and manipulate parliamentarians under threats of tribal reprisals.
One has only to look at how Yemen tribes relate and interact with the state to understand that relations are define around threats of uprising, military retaliations, kidnappings and sabotage attacks.
What is most interesting about Yemen is that although pro-democracy protesters successfully managed in 2011 to impose change by forcing former President Saleh to resign in favour of his then-deputy, President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and thus put in motion the country’s institutional overall; like in Egypt, Yemen’s deep state remained in place, only under a slightly different make up.
Yemen’s axis of power only strayed a little; it never really went completely out of balance, thus preventing meaningful changes on the ground. Today, clashes in northern Yemen have seen two family pitted against each other, supporting each other’s enemies as to bring down each other’s networks of influences.
When Houthi militants pushed their advances in January against Salafis militants, many experts were quick to warned against the pitfalls of sectarianism, missing one key element; covert political games.
Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, Yemen’s billionaire entrepreneur, turned revolutionary in 2011, has, it is important to note, often alleged that former President Saleh has aimed to advance Abdel-Malek al-Houthis’ political agenda as a mean to assert his own revenge against al-Islah (the party supported Yemen’s Arab Spring, acting a rallying force the country’s youth) and guarantee his political survival.
Although, former President Saleh has always strongly denied such allegations, laughing at the idea of an alliance with the very faction he ordered destroyed during his time at the presidency; many politicians of the opposition have questioned the timing of the Houthis’ military revival and the looting of military bases formerly under the control of former President Saleh.
According to al-Islah and its affiliates, former President Saleh would have not only provided military equipment to the Houthis, he would also have pledged his men, among whom, many former Special Forces men and Republican Guards.
Several al-Ahmar tribesmen have explained the Houthis recent advances in Hashid territories by noting that the Shia group had proven to be wielding an incredible fire power and men power, much greater than anyone could have ever anticipated; proof they said that the Houthis have powerful backers.
Whether former President Saleh has or not offer to support the Houthis is beside the point. Because both houses continue to define their existence around the destruction of the other, the country is undergoing a profound shift.
Tribes have moved away from their usual allegiances, reassessing their options: serving the state or a house.