The Slatest

Yemen’s President Just Stepped Down. Now What? 

Young Yemenis watch a news channel showing Yemeni leader Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi on Jan. 22, 2015.

Photo by Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has resigned along with his government after a two-day standoff with the rebel fighters who seized his palace on Tuesday.

Earlier Thursday it looked like Hadi would get to keep his job after he reached an agreement with the Shiite rebel group known as the Houthis that would have given them greater representation in government in return for the removal of fighters from the presidential compound. He would likely have been little more than a puppet under that deal, and finally resigned Thursday, reportedly after the Houthis didn’t remove their fighters as agreed and continued to issue political demands.  

Hadi’s resignation has been a long time coming. The Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September, though not the palace, which is on the outskirts of the city. A deal signed that month called for the formation of a power-sharing government in return for the Houthis withdrawing their fighters from Sanaa, but they continued to maintain checkpoints throughout the city and guard key government buildings.

Formally known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) but generally referred to by the name of their late founder, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, the Houthis belong to the branch of Shiism known as Zaidism, which claims about a third of the country’s population and dominated north Yemen (formerly an independent country) until 1962, when they were overthrown in a military coup that sparked a long and bloody civil war.

Houthi first launched his rebellion in 2004 to win greater autonomy from the Yemeni government, fighting back against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was also Zaidi, but who the Houthis felt wasn’t doing enough to protect them from Sunni encroachment. Houthi was killed in 2004, and his brother now leads the movement.

Saleh’s government kept the insurgency under control for most of its early years. But after Saleh was overthrown in the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which the Houthis supported, the movement took advantage of the ensuing chaos to solidify their control of their home region of Sadah, becoming a virtual state within a state.

They’ve been pushing gradually southward ever since, clashing with a number of rival militias, until they took over the capital basically unopposed in September. The Houthis say they merely want to be guaranteed more representation in the country’s new constitution,  but the government has always maintained that the Houthis’ real goal is to take over and establish a Shiite state. We’ll now see who was right.

The Houthi takeover is probably bad news for the United States. The U.S. and the Houthis share a common enemy in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that took responsibility for this month’s attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and has been targeted by dozens of U.S. drone strikes in recent years. But unlike the U.S.-backed Hadi, the Houthis are opposed to U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and have a habit of chanting “death to America” and “death to Israel” at their rallies. Hadi’s resignation is already having an impact on U.S. policy. On Thursday, American officials today said the U.S. is indefinitely pushing back the repatriation of Yemeni Guantánamo detainees, due to security concerns.

Also, even though they are enemies, al-Qaida is also believed to have benefited from the Houthis’ rise to power. Yemen’s Sunni majority is increasingly alarmed by the Houthis’ gains, and al-Qaida has won new recruits by portraying itself as the Sunnis’ protector.

So what is going to happen in Yemen? The Saudis have cut off all aid to the Yemeni government since the Houthi takeover in September. Hadi’s ouster could lead Saudi Arabia to send in troops to protect its interests, as well as the country’s Sunni population. There are also some reasonable suspicions that former President Saleh has allied himself with the Houthis in a bid to retake power.

There’s also risk of the country splitting apart. North Yemen merged with the formerly Marxist south in 1990, and secessionists fought an unsuccessful civil war in 1994.  But an active separatist movement in the south is likely to be emboldened by the shifting political arrangement.

At the moment it’s not exactly clear who the president of Yemen is. But whoever emerges from the wreckage in Sanaa is going to find himself with very limited control of a state that’s rapidly disintegrating.