The Sa’ada war in northern Yemen may be coming to a close. The Yemeni government announced on June 15 that a cease-fire had been negotiated through the good offices of the Emir of Qatar. Shi’a rebels agreed to lay down their arms after nearly three years of fighting. Hopes are high that an end to hostilities will allow immediate assistance to over a half a million Yemenis in Sa’ada province adversely affected by the fighting.
The rebellion began in 2004 led by cleric Hussain al-Houthi. According to government officials, the rebels aimed to re-institute the Shi’a theocracy overthrown by North Yemen’s republican revolution in 1962. After Hussain was killed in 2004, leadership of the movement transferred to his brother, Abdelmalik al-Houthi. The rebels, known as the Houthis, say they oppose Yemen’s alliance with the U.S. and regime corruption.
Yemeni officials repeatedly accused both Libya and Iran of funding the rebellion situated on the Yemeni-Saudi border. An informed source maintains that the Houthis received millions of dollars from an African country. Monetary transfers intended for the rebels began in the summer of 2006 and continued into 2007, the source claims. This and other reports of foreign meddling raised the specter of the bloody rebellion spiraling into a proxy war between regional heavyweights with hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians caught in the middle.
In January 2007, the Yemeni military declared “all out war” on the Houthis. The military’s subsequent bombing campaign was countered by the rebels who were well armed with medium and heavy weapons. Thousands have been killed or injured in the fighting. Cities and villages have been ravaged. Nearly 50,000 civilians, mostly women and children, are internal refugees.
Assisting and resettling these internally displaced persons is the most urgent requirement facing concerned parties. Diseases including cholera are spreading throughout Sa’ada as medical facilities and supplies were largely unavailable to civilians during the war. The military sealed off Sa’ada province, home to about 700,000 Yemenis, in January, citing security concerns. As a result, food and other basic necessities are in critically short supply. Yemen’s opposition parties charged that the regime deliberately hampered aid deliveries to displaced persons. An information embargo is also in place with all communication cut off including land lines’ and cell phone and internet connections. Journalists are prohibited from reporting from the region.
With human suffering mounting to catastrophic proportions, in early June the Yemeni government declared a humanitarian disaster in Sa’ada and called for international aid. With the cease-fire agreement concluded, the Yemeni regime is expected to end the blockade and immediately open the province to international aid organizations, local media, Qatari observers, and Yemeni civil welfare organizations.
The basis for peace
Rebel forces remain heavily armed and co-mingled with civilians in some urban areas. Local sources report intense fighting is continuing despite official announcements to the contrary. The cease-fire agreement reached between rebel leaders and regime officials does not include all the parties to the conflict. Some powerful military commanders are opposed to the settlement for financial or ideological reasons and have not halted offensive operations.
Yemeni military commanders beyond central control have hampered peace efforts before. A governmental fact-finding committee found that the military at times failed to abide by a prior 2006 amnesty agreement and contributed to the resumption of hostilities. Well connected weapons dealers and sheiks on both sides likewise have profited from the war and may not be eager to see it end. In light of several failures to achieve a lasting peace, the successful and enduring disengagement of forces may require a sustained Qatari presence or that of U.N. observers.
The cease-fire agreement outlines the aftermath of disengagement but not the tactical methods to accomplish a cessation of hostilities. According to its terms, Abdelmalik al-Houthi and other rebel leaders will live in Qatar and refrain from political activity and public statements. Their followers will return to their homes, surrender their medium weapons and commit to “the republican system, the constitution and the laws of the country” according to a statement issued by al-Houthi.
The Yemeni government has declared that in exchange, it will reconstruct damaged private and public property, will respect “freedom of opinion and expression,” will release uncharged detainees, and will allow the rebels to establish a political party. The regime will extend its authority to Sa’ada governorate.
The context of justice
Although the rebels’ philosophy has little popular support, the regime’s concessions to the rebels may have a broader appeal. The sad reality is that the entire nation of Yemen would benefit from having these rights and benefits extended to them as well.
For the central authority to extend itself to Sa’ada requires much more than soldiers. The 700,000 residents of Sa’ada are serviced by one dilapidated hospital. Like in most of rural Yemen, a functional judiciary is absent from Sa’ada. Also absent are clean water, medical facilities, an electrical grid, schools that teach and security forces that protect. Qatar offered USD 500 million in development assistance to Yemen. However the rebellion itself is an indication of the massive amounts of domestic and donor development funds that have been lost to graft, corruption and mismanagement nationally.
That the rebels will be afforded “freedom of opinion and expression” is rather difficult to envision as the Yemeni government is increasingly hostile to free expression. Last week, a teacher and headmaster in Taiz were imprisoned after asking students to write about corruption and price hikes on their exams. In recent months, the government blocked established news websites, prohibited the founding of new newspapers, and criminalized SMS mobile news alerts for all but the official media.
The release of imprisoned, uncharged suspected Houthi loyalists will be a welcome development for the judicial system. However hundreds if not thousands of Yemenis are languishing in jail without trial, some as hostages of the Yemeni government. A recent parliamentary report disclosed over 100 official hostages, some held for over a dozen years. Other Yemenis are jailed in the unregulated tribal prisons prevalent throughout Yemen. Torture is common in Yemeni jails.
The rebels will be allowed to form a political party. However, Yemen’s opposition parties are a décor of democracy which face vast institutional inequities when competing with the hegemonic ruling party. One opposition party was recently disbanded and other mainstream parties may meet a similar fate. The inability of political parties and other institutions to advance the public interest has led to instability. Tribesmen have kidnapped foreign tourists in order to force the regime to release adolescent family members held hostage. Disgruntled taxi drivers left the head of a bull on the steps of parliament after their sit-in was ignored for months. Demonstrations are currently flaring throughout southern Yemen after legitimate grievances were left unaddressed for years.
Exporting the leaders of an unpopular uprising will do little to decrease the state’s vulnerability to rebellion without addressing the context that spawned the violence. The elite’s hollow poetry about reform, its election theatre and empty democratic institutions will not diminish increasing frustration as prices rise, water runs dry, oil reserves deplete and children starve. For peace to be enduring, lessons need to be learned from failure, without rancor. Nothing was achieved in the Sa’ada war that was worth the blood shed.