The Price of Abandoning Yemen

In 2011, Yemenis rejoiced at the toppling of their dictatorial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for 33 years. It was the third successful revolution of the Arab Spring, following the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But, as elsewhere, reconciliation did not follow revolution.

Over the weekend, after a weekslong siege of Sana, the capital, rebels suddenly ousted Yemen’s prime minister and captured the Defense Ministry, the government television station and the central bank. On Sunday, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi signed an agreement dictated by the rebels, known as the Houthis, and facilitated by a United Nations envoy.

The agreement calls for a new prime minister, a plan to devolve power from the capital and a reduction in fuel prices — a major issue that the rebels had seized on to justify their protests. At the same time, however, the Houthis refused to sign the security clauses of the agreement that called for the withdrawal of their forces from Sana and several other areas they had seized.

What pushed Yemen to this point?

After Mr. Saleh was overthrown, the new transitional government acknowledged the past mistreatment of the Houthis, and officially apologized for the six wars Mr. Saleh waged against them between 2004 and 2010. But it did not address all of the historical grievances of the Houthis, who pressed on with their insurgency.

Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis are acting as agents of Iran, which backs them. To legitimize their rebellion, the Houthis had to come up with popular proposals to address rising energy prices and incompetence in the government. It was the poor performance of Yemen’s transitional government that allowed them to succeed.

President Hadi, and his government — including Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, who just stepped down — failed miserably to deliver basic services, spur economic development and, most important, create jobs. Unemployment was one of the main drivers of the revolt against Mr. Saleh.

The international community should have supported Yemen to ensure its successful transition to stability and development. Instead, the international community largely turned its back on Yemen as it sank further into poverty, chaos and extremism. The United States concentrated almost solely on counterterrorism, continuing its drone strikes on Qaeda militants. Saudi Arabia turned its attention to other parts of the region, ignoring the potential chaos on its southern border.

The United States is unlikely to take action: Fighting the terrorist group the Islamic State takes precedence over challenging Iran’s growing influence in the region. Houthis are enemies of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the rebels’ coming to power in Sana will provide a de facto assurance to America with respect to Al Qaeda. The recent statement by Secretary of State John Kerry that even Iran has a role in fighting the Islamic State suggests that America will prioritize accommodation with Iran and the Houthis in Yemen over a peaceful and inclusive movement toward a stable democracy.

Sadly for Yemenis, the rebellion has not only undermined the political gains of the Arab Spring but also created deep divisions in Yemeni society. The Houthis have merely promoted the gun as the ultimate source of power. The fall of Sana gives additional support to other counterrevolutionary movements in the region. Having fought Mr. Saleh for years, the Houthis recently made an alliance with the former dictator against a common adversary: Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, an adviser to Mr. Hadi who is affiliated with the Islamist Islah Party. On Sunday, Tawakkol Karman, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and is a prominent figure in Islah, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote on her Facebook page: “Twelve Houthis stormed my home and seized it, after the signing of the peace and partnership agreement!”

Finally, the rebellion has given Iran the upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula. The West must be prepared to negotiate with a stronger Iran in the next round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program. The quick collapse of the military units that Americans helped finance over the last decade, for the Saleh and Hadi governments, points to the weaknesses in America’s approach to combating terrorism.

To prevent further chaos in Yemen, there is no alternative to putting the peaceful and inclusive transition process back on track. Power does not translate to legitimacy: The Houthis will need the participation of other parties, particularly their opponent Islah, to govern.

The Houthis have demanded the implementation of a plan that would devolve power from Sana. That would be a step forward. Yet the Houthis should note that one of the plan’s major recommendations is to disarm Yemen’s various militias, and begin with themselves. Only then can the hope and promise of the Arab Spring in Yemen be revived.

Ibrahim Sharqieh is the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center.

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