History has always been written by the victors. But what is happening in Yemen teaches us something to the contrary: you can win, but you can’t write the final chapter of history.
Last Wednesday night, Abdul Malek Al Houthi, the self-appointed leader of the Al Houthi militia, preliminary based in northern Yemen, took to the international TV screens. His group had taken over the state TV station. For almost an hour and a half, he spoke about why he was engineering a coup against the legitimate political power in Yemen. He went on talking while his armed militia chased officials on the streets of the capital, Sana’a, kidnapping some of them. They even surrounded the President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s residence. Eventually, he resigned on Thursday night.
At least five myths drive Al Houthis to do what they are doing in Yemeni politics,
First, they believe then can hold on to Yemen on their own, single-handedly. This is impossible. Yemen is a tribal society, it’s geography is mountainous and harsh. Those tribes living in mountains are hard to control.
Even the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century failed to bring Yemen under control. Likewise, the Egyptians too, in the second half of the 20th century. The conquerors can hold on to the Yemeni plains, but not the mountains.
Power by agreement, not force
Yemen’s tribes can be a threat to any central authority, if they find this authority is taking advantage of them. So Al Houthis cannot spread their authority over all of Yemen. They must realise that, like any previous central power in Yemen, they can have real authority only in Sana’a, the capital. Outside that, power comes through agreement, not force.
The second myth is of keeping Yemen united. But what Al Houthis are doing right now will break Yemen. Abdul Malek Al Houthi in his long speech on TV tried to throw some carrots to the Yemenis in the south. But everyone knows that Al Houthis have broken their promises in the past. So if they stick to this path, it could plunge the country deeper into civil war and break it up into more than three geographical or tribal entities.
The third myth is about reviving Yemen’s economy. Yemen relies mainly on foreign donations or remittances from Yemenis working abroad, especially in the Gulf states. If Al Houthis take power, they will face an economic boycott from their immediate neighbours. International embargoes could dry up the revenue coming from Yemeni workers. Yemen under Al Houthis could become even poorer than it is now. That alone could provoke social upheaval.
The fourth myth is serving the interests of Iran. It has been widely reported that Al Houthis are acting in Iranian interests, to hold the strategic Bab Al Mandab Strait in the southern mouth of the Red Sea. But this can cost Iran a lot of effort and money, and burden its ailing economy. Iranians can make things uneasy for the Gulf and the world by allying themselves with Al Houthis. But the benefit to them would be very little.
The fifth and last myth Al Houthis have is to think they can disrupt peace and stability in the GCC countries. But this is far from the reality. The GCC faces storms from Iraq, Syria and even Iran. But it survives because its house is strong. The leaders are in harmony with their people, and that’s what matters. Not what Al Houthis can or can’t do.
Threat of civil war
What they took from the cornered president as he agreed to their demands under threat of force (before resigning) is temporary. If Al Houthis do no change tracks, Yemen could suffer the fate of Somalia, which was left by the world to face poverty and civil wars for a quarter of a century.
Nobody can predict at this stage how the drama in Yemen will unfold, but what we are witnessing now are shifting sands in Sana’a blended with a lot of blood.
Mohammad AlRumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@rumaihi42