Even as protesters in Hong Kong stood firm on Wednesday, leaving Beijing to grapple for a resolution, a quieter crisis continued to simmer in Yemen, where Houthi rebels retain control of the capital Sanaa.
Rebels from the marginalized Shiite minority based in northern Yemen, who are often referred to as the Ansarullah, are pushing back against a predominantly Sunni government with a rebellion years in the making. (Think six armed uprisings in ten years.) Last month this translated to the relatively easy seizure of Sanaa, following a six-month-long southward campaign that culminated in four days of intense fighting with government troops, who quickly vacated the capital’s streets.
Public frustration with the rebels is growing. Tuesday saw the second mass street protest in Sanaa against the Houthi occupation. The hundreds of demonstrators included those who originally participated in the 2012 protests that led to the ouster of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. (For more about Saleh’s autocratic rule, check out our Blouin Beat primer on the 10,000 Days Dictator Club.)
Conspiracy theories are flourishing as well. Some insist that Saleh is aiding the rebels in the hope of indirectly vanquishing his political rivals. (Ansarullah fighters have battled tribal militias affiliated with the Islamist Islah party, one of Saleh’s primary foes.) Another Ansarullah target – and Saleh rival — is Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who led military campaigns against the rebels in northern Yemen. The Yemenese government insists that the hand of Tehran is visible in the current turmoil, in much the same way that Iranian forces are abetting Hezbollah Shiite militants in Lebanon.
Both parties have agreed to a compromise – in principle. A U.N.-mediated deal that would grant Houthi rebels greater influence has thus far failed to squash the movement; and Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi has yet to appoint a new (neutral) premier, as dictated by the disarmament accord. Even if that happens, however, and a unity government is formed, it remains unclear whether rebels will abandon the capital city. Indeed, the very objectives of the rebellion are unclear. While initial demands centered on greater political representation and the restoration of fuel subsidies, recent declarations from group leaders indicate a desire for a more robust role in governance, including a military campaign against the country’s Al Qaeda insurgency.
Because of its strategic position next to Saudi Arabia, instability in Yemen has Gulf states anxious – not to mention their allies in Washington. But while the Houthi-related unrest has elicited condemnations from the U.S. State Department, international reaction has been muted. For now, it appears that all eyes remain on Hong Kong.