Houthi Shiite fighters wearing an army uniform ride on a pickup vehicle as they patrol a street during a demonstration to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015.

Houthi Shiite fighters wearing an army uniform ride on a pickup vehicle as they patrol a street during a demonstration to show support for their comrades in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. Hani Mohammed/AP

Yemen: From the Arab Spring to a Leaderless Nation

Four years after Arab Spring protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen is on the brink of an all-out civil war. By Laura Kasinof

On February 27, 2012, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a man who had been a behind-the-scenes vice president with no real responsibilities for nearly two decades, stood before a large hall full of Yemeni parliamentarians, foreign officials, and journalists. I had never seen Hadi in person before, and on this occasion he was stiff, his face unflinching and eyes locked dead ahead. To my eye, he appeared to understand the gravity of the task before him as he raised his hand into the air, swore on a Quran, and became President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, leader of the Republic of Yemen.

Last week, Hadi’s term came to an end as the rebel Houthi movement, whose fighters had occupied the Yemeni capital Sanaa since September, essentially forced him to resign. Protesters took to the city's streets on Saturday to express opposition to the takeover. But on that February day when Hadi took his oath of office, it seemed for a brief moment—after a year of brutal attacks on anti-government protesters, factional fighting within the military, and government breakdown—that there was potential for positive change for Yemen. At the very least, there was collective relief that Hadi’s inauguration went off smoothly.

Foreign ambassadors and Yemeni officials who had worked tirelessly on the agreement that brought an end to the 33-year reign of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh slapped one another on the back and shook hands in congratulations. Members of parliament were all smiles and cheek kisses. My fellow journalists and I were giddy with the thrill of the day. I couldn’t stop smiling at the thought that one of the protesters’ goals had come to pass: Saleh was no longer president. The only people who weren’t sharing in the gleeful atmosphere were Saleh’s loyal cronies within parliament, men who had grown rich through the Saleh regime’s corruption; they sulked in the dirt yard after the inauguration was over. There was no one there representing the Houthis, who now control the government. At the time, they were in Yemen’s north, consolidating power far away from the capital.

But I wasn’t thinking about that then. Few of the people I spoke with that day brought up Hadi’s lack of leadership experience or the absence of local support for him. It didn’t even occur to me to ask about it. Rather, I just wanted to hear about what it meant for parliamentarians and officials that this day had finally come to pass—that the mass protests that began in Yemen in 2011, during the Arab Spring, had borne fruit.

I did wonder what would happen next for the country, my adopted home at the time, because the transition agreement that ushered Hadi into power, known as the Gulf Initiative, was vague. It consisted mostly of lofty promises such as a restructuring of the armed forces, which were divided between those who still supported Saleh and those loyal to opposition parties (the proposal did not include integrating the Houthi militias into the Yemeni military). A new constitution was to be drafted through a national dialogue in which Yemenis from all sides of the country’s social and political divides would, in theory, sort out their differences. How that would work in practice was not specified. Nevertheless, the deal, brokered by a conglomeration of Western governments, the UN, and Arab Gulf states, was touted as the only hope for Yemen’s future.

But we should have seen this coming. Three years later, the Houthis have stormed the capital, battled with the few soldiers who fought on Hadi’s behalf, and shelled the president’s home. Today’s leaderless, fragmented Yemen is even more desperate than the country was before Saleh resigned, with sectarian violence between Shiite Houthi supporters and their Sunni foes on the rise, and the threat of civil war ever-present. Uncertainty is the dominant theme across the country, from the steep, dry mountains of the north to the salty, palm-filled cities of the south, and it’s clear now that the Hadi government’s focus on implementing the Gulf Initiative’s ill-defined provisions kept it from dealing with the country’s progressive collapse.

“The Houthis were advancing and no one was paying attention,” explained Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and opposition activist, by phone.

Yemen’s central government has never been strong or exercised full control over the country. Sheikhs, or tribal leaders, fill that void, as they’ve done for centuries, by arbitrating disputes, providing essential services like water, and enforcing customary law. Saleh had kept some semblance of control over the nation by pitting the sheikhs who could threaten his authority against one another, while making alliances with local leaders through an intricate patronage system. For decades, Saleh exhibited a genius for staying in power, but his style of rule never addressed Yemen’s fundamental problems, including poverty, conflicts over water resources, and a lack of basic services and education. He ignited resentment that flared into violence. Even before the Arab Spring, Western writers wondered whether Yemen was “the next Afghanistan” and pronounced it “on the brink of chaos.”

It was in this context that the Houthi movement, which had been engaged in a recurring war with government forces since 2004, was gathering strength in Saada, a province in Yemen’s far north. Theirs was a Shiite revivalist movement; Saleh alleged that the Houthis wanted to topple his regime and restore the imamate, the monarchy-style system of religious rule that had governed parts of the country for centuries. Yet in reality the Houthis’ political aims have always been murky, and they remain so even now, when it seems that their only clear aim in seizing Sanaa was to prevent Hadi from creating a federal system that could threaten their power.

Still, it wasn’t primarily the Houthis that pushed Saleh out during the Arab Spring. In cities cross the country, tens of thousands of protesters called for Saleh to step down, and the president lost crucial allies after his military killed unarmed demonstrators. Amid the gradual collapse of Saleh’s authority, the Houthis took control of more territory in the north while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its reach in Yemen’s southern provinces. Yemeni officials and Western ambassadors hatched a plan to replace Saleh with Hadi. As the political transition dragged on for months, violence, defections at the highest levels of government, and economic turmoil brought the country to what one foreign aid worker described to me at the time as “failed-state status.”

This is what Hadi confronted when he became president—without the leadership experience and cunning that Saleh had used to keep the country afloat, even if just barely. The U.S. ambassador to Yemen at the time, Gerald Feierstein, recalled in a recent interview that when the transition agreement was being drafted, “Hadi himself expressed reluctance to move into the presidency,” but that he “became more comfortable in the role and the political parties became more open to him and rallied around.”

“I think there was always an understanding that he had his limitations as a political leader,” said Feierstein, who now serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, "but those limitations were outweighed by what were seen as his positive characteristics as an even-handed figure unlikely to take on the authoritarian rule of his predecessor.”

During the few years of Hadi’s presidency, the crises that had erupted during the Arab Spring only worsened. The Houthis gradually battled southward toward the capital. AQAP escalated its attacks on the government, while politicians jockeyed to take advantage of the power vacuum that Saleh had left behind and Hadi hadn’t managed to fill. Less than two years ago, the UN’s special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, stood before the Security Council and hailed Yemen as having had the only peaceful presidential transition among countries affected by Arab Spring protests, touting the “extraordinary progress” of the national dialogue underway. But the story just under the surface was different. The Yemeni press reported with foreboding on conflict between the Houthis and northern tribes, and escalating demands for independence by a separatist movement in the south.

Last week, just before Hadi’s resignation and after the Houthis shelled the president’s home, the group’s leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, criticized Hadi for serving the interests of the international community instead of working for the country. While much of the rest of al-Houthi’s speech, which portrayed his movement as fighting corruption and sticking up for the commoner, was political rhetoric, his point about Hadi contained some truth, and Yemenis know it. Indeed, I am told by friends in Sanaa that anti-Americanism is on the rise there, in part because Yemenis see their now-former leader as a Western pawn. Yet as Saturday’s protests make clear, many Yemenis also oppose the Houthis. Hence the potential for civil war.

On another level, however, Hadi’s resignation doesn’t change much in the daily lives of Yemenis, who are already accustomed to living in a state of political chaos in which the central government barely has a presence in their lives. Hadi had very little real power to begin with. But his resignation does mean that a country housing one of the most dangerous branches of al-Qaeda, in the heart of a tumultuous region, is now also a country without a government.