The mysteries in the September events in Sanaa loom large. Who decided that security forces should not try to stop the Houthis from entering the Yemeni capital? Why didn’t Hashid tribes, closely tied to the political elites of Sanaa, stop them? These are questions that southerners are asking when trying to make sense of what happened on September 21 when Ansar Allah, the militia of the Houthi political group, stormed the largest city in the north.
What many believe is that the Houthis were used by former president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih to dislodge Maj. Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a long-time player in the Yemeni political elite and his former righthand man, and to weaken al-Ahmar’s political affiliate, the Islamist party known as Islah. For decades, the Sanhan tribe to which Salih and al-Ahmar belong has monopolized power in Sanaa, excluding not only the Houthis but also the biggest tribal confederation, the Bakil. These tensions have hindered state building in northern Yemen since the 1960s, but have very little to do with the south, where the hirak, a movement for autonomy from the capital, continues to build momentum.
Southerners received the news of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa with mixed feelings. Some are optimistic that the sudden change opens up the possibility of breaking the overall political deadlock that men such as Salih created. Others see the country dragged more deeply into the great game between the Saudis and the Iranians for regional hegemony, a message that satellite channels from the Gulf repeat evening after evening. For still others, the Houthis are just hicks with no manners. Rumors spread through qat chews and social media that while the Houthis presented acceptable views on women’s role in society at the National Dialogue Conference, at home their wives have no rights whatsoever. More than ten years of disinformation in Yemeni state and independent media has borne fruit: Houthis are seen as the ultimate other. Their leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s assurances that the movement will meet the southerners’ demands are not believed. Instead, some prefer to follow the call of the Southern Military Council to seize control of southern cities. Headed by Muhammad Salih Tammah, this new body gathers together southern officers who were expelled from the army after the 1994 civil war to supervise the formation of a southern military force. Towns are falling outside the control of Sanaa; after Sanaa fell to the Houthis, the governor of Aden, Sanaa-nominated Islah party representative Wahid Rashid fled Aden and left his office to a deputy. It is evident that he expected Aden to be next to fall into the hands of anti-government forces. In Aden his escape was received with amusement.
The only southerner participating in Sanaa’s endless power game is President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. He may have learned the main lesson from the 30-year tenure of his predecessor Salih: Make your enemies fight each other. That the Houthis are attacking Islah party offices and homes of prominent Islahis such as Tawakkul Karman certainly indicates that he has. To southerners, it makes no difference. Hadi is seen as just as culpable as his predecessor in the assault on the south in the 1994 war and afterward.
Southerners have reacted with little enthusiasm to Hadi’s move, following the peace deal with the Houthis, to replace his political adviser with a hirak representative alongside Houthi man ‘Ali al-Sammad. The nominee, Yasin al-Makkawi, is an Adeni intellectual and hirak activist but hardly represents the movement as such. Older southerners remember that another Makkawi acted as political adviser to the British when Aden was a Crown Colony.
Local organizations loosely attached to the hirak, political parties and the mighty tribal groups of Hadramawt are busily holding meetings in Aden, Mukalla and Cairo. At issue is the search for a common leadership to shepherd the south toward successful disengagement from Sanaa. As an Adeni hirak leader put it to me, “Unification of the hirak under one leadership is a must.” While some politicians, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party’s northern wing, still believe in federation, others, including the party’s southern wing, are moving toward backing full independence.
The problem facing the hirak is to secure the cooperation of the tribes in oil-rich Hadramawt and the area further east, al-Mahra, which abhor any outside ruler. The Hadrami tribes’ meeting included local political parties and issued a call to remove the Yemeni army from Hadrami territory. But, as for autonomy from Sanaa, the meeting simply pleaded with Hadi to visit for talks about the future of the area.
The “southern peaceful revolution,” as the independence movement calls itself, is a grassroots movement. On the surface, some of its activities seem apolitical, such as efforts to restore historical monuments or demands to reopen the Sira brewery, which ran three shifts per day before it was hit by bazooka fire during the 1994 civil war. On a daily basis, though, the hirak is building up an alternative to the rule of Sanaa. Even if the hirak fails to unite as a credible political force representing the entire south, grassroots action will continue to keep Sanaa out. As tribes are capable of closing roads and seizing oilfields, there is little that Sanaa can do to regain control of the alienated south.