By Manuel Almeida
18 November 2014
Until very recently, it was safe to say that one of the main beneficiaries of the 2011 uprisings in Yemen was the Muslim Brotherhood. Well organized and prepared like its Egyptian counterpart, the Brotherhood spearheaded the protests that demanded an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three decade rule.
The Brotherhood took advantage of the power vacuum to play a central role in the political transition process. As part of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (or al-Islah, the coalition formed by Hashid tribal leadership, businessmen and Islamist groups of various kind), Brotherhood leaders participated actively in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference.
The unelected national unity cabinet, appointed in December 2011 by then Vice-President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was divided in equal numbers between the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) of which al-Islah is part. The allegiance of Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa and Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar to al-Islah allowed the Brotherhood to spread their influence within the state and military apparatus.
The Brotherhood’s fortunes took a turn for the worse with the military offensive by the disgruntled Zaydi Houthi rebels who took over the capital Sanaa in September this year. In this ambitious move the Houthis were supported by pro-Saleh tribes and groups in the military, looking to undermine President Hadi’s position and resentful of the growing power of al-Islah.
While negotiating with Hadi the terms for the formation of a new government more favourable to them, the Houthis conducted a purge of the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Islah. Offices and buildings owned or run by the Brotherhood were either closed or destroyed. Basindwa resigned and Ali Mohsen, who had led the most recent military campaign against Houthi positions in the north, was reportedly forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.
Determined to expand their area of influence to use as a bargaining chip and simultaneously deliver a hard blow to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the radical Ansar al-Sharia organization and the Salafists, the Houthis did not stop at Sanaa. Houthi fighters still continue to push through in the governorates of al-Baydah al-Hudaydah, Amran, Dhamar, Ibb (where they captured the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters), Marib and Taiz.
Politically, the Houthi offensive paid off, at least so far. Earlier this month Hadi announced a new government led by Prime Minister-designate Khaled Bahah, a former oil minister and ambassador to the U.N. The GPC (paying the price for internal divisions) and the JMP saw their influence curtailed.
The appointments to key ministerial positions of defence, finance, foreign affairs and interior were Hadi’s responsibility, but the Houthis secured six ministerial posts: justice, oil and mineral resources, electricity and energy, culture, civil service, and vocational education. The Southern secessionist movement known as al-Hirak got six portfolios, and the GPC received nine. The JMP also received nine portfolios, including higher education and scientific research and religious endowments and guidance, sectors where the Brotherhood already had great sway.
Unsurprisingly, the JMP leadership was vocal in their disagreement about the division of ministerial positions. They see the new arrangement as contrary to the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference from which the JMP and the Brotherhood benefited.
Now a primary target of the Houthis, the Brotherhood has become a victim of its own success in the way it managed to spread its influence in the Yemeni state. It is also suffering the consequences of side-lining its revolutionary partners within the JMP. Most important in the Houthis perspective are the ties between the Brotherhood’s leadership and Yemen’s Salafists, who together will al-Qaeda have been in open confrontation with the revivalist Zaidy group.
Spread of Salafism
Concerns about the spread of Salafism run deep in Yemen. In March 2012 the Salafists announced the formation of the Yemeni Rashad Union, Yemen’s first Salafist political party. Among its prominent leaders are Sheikh Mohamed Al-Baidani, Abd Al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, and Sheikh Abdel-Mageed al-Zindani. Humayqani and Zindani have been listed by the U.S. Treasury Department as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists” for providing financial backing to al-Qaeda through their network of charities. Zindani was also reportedly a co-founder of al-Islah and is said to have close ties with the global Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite some attempts by Brotherhood leaders such as Yasin Abd al-Aziz al-Qubati to distance themselves from the likes of Zindani and emphasize the difference between moderate Islamism and radical Salafism, many fear the Brotherhood’s real intentions. A prominent Yemeni journalist I spoke to recently is certain that if the Yemeni Brotherhood takes power, “they would do same thing as they did in Egypt, by excluding others.”
The Brotherhood is currently under enormous pressure in Yemen. Yet al-Islah’s human and financial resources, media influence and grassroots support in many governorates is a guarantee that they will remain one of the main forces to be reckoned with. In a future and long overdue general election, al-Islah and the Brotherhood would still do very well.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.