Martin Reardon

Following the meteoric rise to power of Yemen’s Houthi rebels last September, there were two opposing schools of thought on what it really meant.

On one end of the spectrum, it was argued that the Houthis, who had legitimate, long term grievances of economic and political disenfranchisement by the government, might just provide the impetus needed for Yemen to finally address the widespread corruption, poor governance, poverty, lack of education, resource depletion and a host of other social and political injustices felt throughout the country. No one else seemed to be able to bring about positive change, so why not give the Houthis a chance?

On the other end of the spectrum, it was argued that too much Houthi influence - especially at the expense of other political entities with their own agendas - would further splinter the country and perhaps even put it on a trajectory towards civil war.

UN envoy to Yemen warns of civil war

In light of recent events, that second school of thought appears to be the more accurate forecast at this point. For Yemen’s sake, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

‘My way or the highway’

Not happy with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s draft constitution, the Houthis placed him under house arrest two months ago, and then forced him and his cabinet to resign. The Houthis then announced unilateral plans to dissolve parliament, replacing it with a transitional national council that they would, for all intents and purposes, control.

The part about governing Yemen that the Houthis seemed to have forgotten is that a unilateral, ‘my way or the highway’ approach doesn’t work there in the long run.

Given the deteriorating security situation on the ground and general lack of confidence in the Houthis’ ability to govern, the international response was as expected - foreign embassies began to close and their diplomatic staff evacuated.

In a dramatic escape from Sanaa late last month, Hadi fled south to Aden, where he has since withdrawn his resignation and established the port city as Yemen’s de facto capital. He made no attempt to minimise the significance of the Houthi takeover in Sanaa, publicly referring to it as a coup. Hadi has called for all government ministers to join him in Aden, and insists he remains committed to establishing a federal power sharing system - something the Houthis are just as adamantly opposed to. In fact, they are taking active measures to prevent those ministers still in Sanaa from leaving.

Earlier this week, Yemen’s Defense Minister, Mahmoud al-Subaihi, did manage to escape from house arrest to join Hadi in Aden, but lost five of his bodyguards fighting the Houthis en route. Prime Minister Khaled Bahah remains under house arrest in Sanaa, and its not likely the Houthis will let him slip away, too.

Power sharing

With the Houthis firmly in control of the capital city of Sanaa and Hadi set to rule from Aden, events on the ground in Yemen appear similar to what war-torn Libya is going through right now - two opposing governments, neither of which can claim complete legitimacy or appears able to effectively rule, occupying separate capitals and battling an entrenched terrorist threat that looks at both as the enemy.

It’s easy to say just let Yemen split, with Hadi in the south and the Houthis or Saleh in the north. But that’s likely to lead to a protracted and costly civil war, with control over Yemen’s energy resources being a key objective for both sides.  

At Hadi’s request, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states agreed earlier this week to host talks in Riyadh between the different political factions in an attempt to keep Yemen from splintering.

No date has been set yet, but at this point, an open dialogue on how to govern the country through a workable power sharing agreement is Yemen’s best, and perhaps last, chance at preventing a civil war. The United Nations and the West also back those talks. So far, it appears both the Islah party - Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - and Al-Hirak, the southern secessionist group, are among those political entities amenable to participation.

Noticeably absent will be the Houthis, who outright reject the notion of meeting in Riyadh, arguing that Hadi lacks the legitimacy to arrange talks anywhere since he resigned from the presidency in January. In all likelihood, the Houthis’ adversarial relationship with the Saudis also figured prominently in their refusal to attend. Joining the Houthis in their rejection of the Riyadh talks is Yemen’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress or GPC, which is widely believed to have worked behind the scenes to aid the Houthis in their rise to power.

Battle lines

Tellingly, Hadi’s predecessor, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to resign from office in 2011, leads the GPC. Earlier this week, Saleh urged Hadi to leave the country and go into exile, which would conveniently set the stage for his return to power in one capacity or another. So, are the battle lines drawn?

It’s easy to say just let Yemen split, with Hadi in the south and the Houthis or Saleh in the north. But that’s likely to lead to a protracted and costly civil war, with control over Yemen’s energy resources being a key objective for both sides. It also over simplifies the very real challenges each would face in putting together separate coalitions to govern the complex social, economic and political landscape, not to mention the implications for regional security.

There is no quick and easy fix for Yemen, but viewing the situation there from the lens of Libya, Syria and Iraq, the best way forward is for all the parties to be at the negotiating table to work out an equitable power sharing agreement. Whether that takes place in Sanaa, Aden, Riyadh or a more neutral site is beside the point. Failing that, the consequences are too great, and neither side wins.–Aljazeera