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What Is the Houthi Takeover in Yemen About?

Yemen has been plunged into chaos.

In just under two weeks, Yemen has been plunged into chaos that, analysts are saying, could change the face of the nation forever. It started on January 22nd when Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi resigned amidst pressure from Houthi rebel forces.

The Houthis, which are a Shiite militia from northern Yemen, have been making their way across the north, seizing towns and villages. They arrived in Sannaa mid-month and swiftly seized control of government buildings and took over public order.

One of their first moves was to jail a number of journalists and activists inside the capital. The US Embassy went into emergency mode, telling all American citizens inside of Yemen to leave immediately and take care to stagger their movements as kidnappings were a clear and present danger. However, as of now, there are no chartered flights or evacuation plans, leaving it up to citizens to make their own way out of the country.

Since the takeover, there have been protests around Sanaa, especially within the capital’s university, which has always been a bastion for protests and demonstration. Over the weekend an anti-Houthi rally, which drew more than 10,000 citizens to the street, was broken up by live ammunition.

The Houthi militia called for political parties to come to Sanaa for closed-door talks on how to best move the nation forward. However, during the talk, only former President Abdullah Ali Saleh showed up, with the rest of the nation’s political parties boycotting the meeting. Former President Saleh was ousted by popular opinion after a 22-year long rule in the country.

There have been reports, although unconfirmed, that Saleh has financed and backed Houthi rebels. Whether it is in a bid to return to his position, or simply because he supports the rebel group’s politics is not known.

Meanwhile, Parliament has been postponing meetings on how to address these issues. Although the official line is that they simply want to ensure everyone involved can attend, there’s little doubt that their position in Yemen right now is incredibly precarious. At the moment, it is being reported that President Hadi and his cabinet are being monitored by Houthis, who have put them under house arrest.

Yet, researcher with Human Rights Watch Letta Tayler told NPR that while the Houthi slogan is ‘God is Great, Death to America and Death to Israel,’ their actions have been less contentious:

“Despite the slogan, the Houthis have not harmed Americans, nor have they harmed Israel. It’s AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula] in Yemen… that is kidnapping and in some cases killing, foreigners. It’s not the Houthis. So again, they’re a wild card. We really don’t know which direction they might go.”

She went on to note that, “Ironically, the one thing that we know that the Houthis and the U.S. government have in common is that they both want to get rid of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula…It may not be entirely implausible to envision the Houthis and the United States joining in the fight against AQAP.”

Further complicating matters, as a Shiite group, Houthis have become an issue for Yemen’s neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, which is almost entirely made up of Sunnis. Right now, those in the region are holding their breath and waiting to see what emerges from the recent armed takeover. However, considering Houthi actions in the capital so far, it doesn’t look like it’s the respite from power politics that Yemenis so badly need.