If ever there was a case of needing a long spoon to sup with the devil, the killing on Monday of the former president of Yemen by his erstwhile allies, the Iran-backed Houthi militia, proves it. While president, Ali Abdullah Saleh struggled to contain Houthi violence. But he then teamed up with them in 2015 and unleashed civil war. Saleh’s fate was sealed over the weekend when he announced he was prepared to abandon his Houthi partners and start peace talks.
The falling out between the two allies illustrates two important points. One, the strategy of the Arab Coalition, though much criticized, is working. It has succeeded in bringing Saleh to the table. Second, it belies the widespread misunderstanding in Britain that the conflict in Yemen is a war between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni people. Not at all. It is a struggle to fulfil the promise of the Arab Spring, for Yemenis to live under a government of their own choosing.
That dream began in 2011 when the people of Yemen rose up against endless rule by one man and his family. Thousands of people took to the streets in the capital, Sana’a, and other cities demanding Saleh step down. After 33 years in power he was reluctant to relinquish his grip. But after months of turmoil nearly two thirds of eligible voters chose a new president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Those were heady days. We had every reason to believe we were on the cusp of joining Tunisia, the only other country in the region to peacefully manage the transition from dictatorship to democracy.
But the dream of a democratic transition was hijacked by Islamist rebels. The Houthis seized the capital by force and attempted to replace the legitimate government. With Saleh’s help they illegally detained the cabinet and President Hadi, who later escaped to Aden. And they launched an insurgency that has caused immense suffering across the country.
These actions were condemned in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls on the Houthis to withdraw from the areas they have seized. The Yemeni government requested help from our friends in the region: Eight Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia answered the call. The U.N.-mandated mission of this Arab coalition is to restore constitutional government and reverse the Houthi coup.
Yemen's ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh gives a speech addressing his supporters during a rally as his General People's Congress party, marks 35 years since its founding, at Sabaeen Square in the capital Sanaa on August 24, 2017.
Neighboring countries have an understandable interest in supporting a responsible government in Sana’a. The Houthi militia have proved themselves anything but. On Sunday they claimed to have fired a missile towards a nuclear power station under construction in Abu Dhabi. There can be few acts more irresponsible.
Media workers and civil society activists in Houthi-ruled areas face arrest, as Reporters Without Borders has warned. So information is scarce. But we know life under the Houthis is grim. They have kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned opponents. They have opened fire on protesters demonstrating against their rule. The Houthis are an armed militia. They are simply not equipped to build a democratic, functioning state.
The Saudi-led campaign has been heavily criticised. It has even been blamed by a top British politician for causing food shortages in the city of Taiz, in central Yemen. But it is the Houthis, not the government, who are besieging Taiz with artillery fire. People living there are forced to smuggle food, medicine and even water to survive. Yet it is the Saudis, not the Houthis, who bear the brunt of criticism.
And it is the Houthis who are doing much to deprive Yemenis of the essentials of life. In recent weeks they have increased taxes to punitive levels and added new customs posts. Prices in the areas they control have soared. Wheat, flour and petrol are almost twice as expensive than in cities such as Aden and Mareb, which remain under government control.
The suffering of the people of Yemen will not be lessened if Saudi Arabia, Britain and our allies abandon us. The only solution is to return to the principles of the Arab Spring, the reinstatement of the constitution and the start of democratic politics. The first step must be peace talks. Saleh recognised that. Now the Houthis must too.