Yemen crisis: US, France, Britain closing embassies amid rising protests

Fears of a sectarian war in Yemen increased as the largest protests erupted since the Houthis seized power. The US State Department warned of risks to the diplomatic community in Sanaa.

Hani Mohammed/AP
A policeman, left, mans a machine gun atop a military vehicle as he guards the entrance of the US Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. The State Department has closed the US Embassy in Yemen and evacuated its staff because of the political crisis and security concerns following the takeover of much of the country by Shiite rebels.

The British, French, and American embassies have been shuttered in Yemen and others look set to soon follow suit, as the largest protests broke out since the Houthi movement's coup in mid-January.

Reuters reports that there was a small protest against the Shiite Houthi movement's takeover in Sanaa, which was menaced by members of the movement brandishing daggers and firing rifles into the air. A far larger protest, numbering over 10,000,  was held in the city of Taiz, which is now outside central government control.

"Leaders and Sunni tribesmen in the southern and eastern regions, which the group has yet to seize, are arming themselves against their push and are in some cases making common cause with Yemeni Al Qaeda militants, leading to fears of an all-out sectarian war," Reuters wrote.

The Obama administration has continued to avoid describing the Houthi takeover in Sanaa as a "coup," but a statement from State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki Tuesday acknowledge the situation in all but name. 

Due to the uncertain security situation in Sana’a, the Department of State has decided to suspend our embassy operations and our embassy staff have been temporarily relocated out of Sana’a. Recent unilateral actions disrupted the political transition process in Yemen, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community in Sana’a. ...

We reiterate the call of the United Nations Security Council for immediate release of President Hadi, Prime Minister Bahah, and members of the Yemeni cabinet. An inclusive political process cannot resume with members of the country’s leadership under house arrest.

The risk of civil war is growing in Yemen, as are the opportunities for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which operates training camps inside the country and has planned attacks on the US from there. Though the Shiite Houthis hate AQAP, and the feeling is mutual, the movement also makes "death to America" one of its most prominent political slogans.

The Monitor wrote yesterday:

But with the Shiite Houthi movement, which has close ties to Iran and and includes "death to America" in one of its best known slogans, keeping President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi under under house arrest and the risk of civil war growing, ongoing US efforts inside Yemen look tenuous. Since 2010, the Obama administration has conducted a campaign of drone assassinations in the country, consisting of about 100 strikes that have killed hundreds of alleged AQAP supporters and dozens of civilians.

While President Hadi and his predecessor were allies in that effort, ongoing intelligence support from Yemeni officials who answer to the Houthis appears unlikely.

In an analysis piece from Sanaa, Reuters considers the current state of play was reached.

When Yemen’s Houthi fighters scaled the rooftops surrounding former President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s home, killed his guards and put him under house arrest, they left no doubt that negotiating a political settlement with them would be difficult. ...

In a lightning push through northern Yemen and into Sanaa last year, the group took advantage of splits in the ruling and tribal elite and of widespread anger at years of government malfeasance. They portrayed their move as a “people’s revolution” against corruption which they say was emptying state coffers. Their decision to dissolve parliament and set up an interim government was denounced as a coup by one political faction.

“We never expected that the Houthis would attack the president’s house, because the confrontations were at the palace. And suddenly at midday, snipers began targeting the presidential home’s guards from all directions,” a source close to Hadi told Reuters.

Gregory Johnson wrote after the Houthi takeover about the group's history, the conditions that brought them to power, and what may come next.

In 2000, Yemen’s then-President Ali Abdullah Salih made one of his periodic changes to a discretionary fund that was known within his office as al-i’timad, or support. Salih used the money as a governing tool — when one rival got too strong, Salih would funnel money toward opponents as a way of keeping them in check without confronting them directly. It was part of what he called “dancing on the heads of snakes,” staying ahead of his enemies by playing them off against one another. The process was crude and prone to fluctuation, but for years it worked. The strategy allowed Salih, who came to power on the heels of the brutal assassinations of his two immediate predecessors, to survive and, for awhile, even prosper.

In the mid-1990s, an Islamist political grouping called Islah, which included the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as tribal elements, had started to grow in power, taking control of a handful of key ministries. Salih, who had been funding the group off and on for years, withdrew his support and started funding their domestic enemies.

One of the beneficiaries of that shift was a member of parliament named Husayn al-Huthi, who came from a religious family that traced its roots back to the Prophet Muhammad and for years had been like local royalty. Studious and momentarily tired of politics, Huthi, 41, decided not to stand for re-election in 1997. Instead, he used Salih’s money to study for a master’s degree in Sudan. Three years later, in 2000, the political winds shifted again. Islah had been weakened, and Salih took Huthi off the payroll. With no stipend, Huthi had little choice. He withdrew from his program in Sudan and returned home.

Two years later, the chants started: “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses upon the Jews! Victory for Islam!”

That BBC reports that Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the son of the movement's founder and its current leader, has sought to reassure foreign powers like the US.

But rebel leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi rejected Western fears about the security situation in Yemen in a televised address on Tuesday evening, insisting they were "unfounded."

Mr. Houthi said it was "in the interests of everyone, both inside and outside the country, that Yemen be stable" and warned that "the interests of those who bet on chaos and want to hurt the economy and security of the people will suffer," singling out Sunni-ruled states in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) who have accused the Houthis of a "coup."

The UN's special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, organized talks between the Houthis and the main political factions last week, but they collapsed on Thursday. The following day, the Houthis announced that they would impose their own political solution to end the stand-off.

The Washington Post reports that Yemen's former strongman Saleh has once again emerged as a key player.

“I was very right to hand over power,” Saleh said during an interview Tuesday in the courtyard of his sprawling residential compound. He says he spends his time these days reading and doing physical therapy to recover from wounds sustained during the uprising.

But many Yemenis believe that Saleh never really relinquished his power. He is widely accused of using his wealth, family connections and influence over the military and tribal leaders to aid an insurgency that toppled the U.S.-backed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi last month.

“Saleh handed over the presidency, but he did not hand over power,” said Farea Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni analyst and visiting scholar at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center.

Saleh’s influence was largely left intact because of an internationally backed political transition process that granted him immunity from prosecution and allowed him to remain in the country after he stepped down. He continues to chair the powerful party that he founded, the General People’s Congress.

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