OK, So What's the Deal with Yemen?

February 19th 2015

Alicia Lutes

Yemen in on the brink of collapse. Sure, its government has always struggled to maintain autonomy over the years, but things took a major turn on January 22nd, when a group of Northern Yemen Radicals ousted the president and the parliament. Given that Yemen's former president — Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi — was a major political ally for us both in the region but also in the fight against al-Qaeda worldwide, what's going down in the country is important to the United States.

OK, So Tell Me — What's Happening?

Essentially, three things are happening at once. The president has been kicked out, a new leader has been implemented by the rebels — Mohammed Ali al-Houthi — and a temporary government has been instated.

Meanwhile, the people of Yemen aren't so happy about any of this. (Would you be?) In recent days there have been protests (with supporters numbering in the thousands) against the takeover. This is ultimately what caused the US to shut down our own embassy in the area on the 10th of February — and caused a slew of other Western nations to follow suit. Add to this the fact that al-Qaeda is upping their attacks and has even seized an army base, and it's no wonder the United Nations recently declared that Yemen is "collapsing before our eyes." On Sunday (Feb. 15), the UN had adopted a Security Council resolution demanding The Houthis give up power.

Ultimately, the real sufferers in all of this are the people of Yemen who've already had a tough go of it, being one of the poorest nations in the Arab world.

And The Houthis Are?

Now, if you were not aware, the Muslim religion has many various tenets, offshoots, and seriously nuanced differences between its many factions in theology, law, and general beliefs. So though this is a general overview, know there's quite a bit more to the history of the various sects. The Houthis come from a branch of Shiites that follow the practices of Zaidism. (In the Muslim religion there are three major branches: Shiites, Sunni, and Sufi. The Root has a great explainer on the differences between all three.) Zaidism — or Zaidiyyah — believes that the spiritual leader (the Imam) should be a direct descendant of Muhammad via his only surviving daughter Fatimah's two sons.

But The Houthis are not in the majority. Yemen itself is mostly Sunni, but the Zaidi sect does make up one third of the population. Some outlets are reporting that the rebels are actually being supported by Iran (which is mostly Shiite), and may be working with the former Iranian president Ali Abdullah Saleh (the guy who, in 2012, was ousted from office during the Arab Spring). who was overthrown in 2012 during the Arab Spring.

Still, the Houthis aren't new kids on the block: they formed in the 1990s under the tutelage of a religious and political figure by the name of Hussein Al Houthi — and the group has been fighting the Yemeni government for years. After the revolution in 2012, the Houthis have been outspoken in their desire for not only a more active role in government affairs, but the drafting of a new constitution as well.

So They're Not al-Qaeda?

No, they're not. In fact they're not at all affiliated with the terrorist organization — though al-Qaeda does have power in Yemen, too.

What Does al-Qaeda Have to Do with All of This?

They're attacking people, too. But what makes this all particularly unfortunate is the fact that the branch of al-Qaeda hanging out in Yemen just so happens to the faction better known to the rest of the world as the guys who orchestrated the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP for short). So it feels safe to say that their being involved — and potentially gaining power of any kind — is a less-than-great thing.

What this all adds up to is another possible sectarian civil war in the Middle East.