Government, De Facto Authority and Rebel Governance in Times of COVID-19: The Case of Yemen

Eleonora Ardemagni, Italian Institute for International Political Studies

Governments, de facto authorities and rebel-governed areas aspiring to “counterstate sovereignty”[1] all have to cope with the pandemic threat posed by COVID-19. Both official militaries and armed non-state groups find themselves at the centre of emergency plans in response to the pandemic, declaring and enforcing social distancing measures such as lockdowns and curfews. The case of Yemen shows how in conflict-torn or fragmented countries, governments, de facto authorities and rebels may show a convergent, although not coordinated, response to COVID-19. The internationally-recognized government and the Houthis are implementing similar measures, so far, but what differs – and what can make the difference in terms of crisis containment – is the pattern of security governance adopted on the territory. The government and the Houthis established two distinctively different forms of “war time social orders”.[2] The Houthis have centralized security governance, while the recognized government has developed a fluid scheme of multiple and competing security providers at a local level. This uncoordinated model could diminish the effectiveness of the anti-pandemic response, and also undermine state capacity.

Most Arab armies have been deployed in the streets to enforce social distancing measures, as in the case of Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. In Morocco, the army also set up field hospitals and in Jordan it also organized the delivery of basic services at home. In the Gulf monarchies, police forces rather than armies oversee citizens’ compliance with the emergency rules, as well as leading COVID-19 awareness campaigns. The exception is Oman, where the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF) are deployed alongside the police at the checkpoints established across the Sultanate. The spread of COVID-19 is therefore likely to mark a new turning-point in civil-military relations across the region as armed forces and police rebrand themselves as the guardians of public health. One initial outcome of their role in enforcing curfews and lockdowns has been an intensified militarization of public space, as the state of emergency further erodes the boundaries between internal security forces and the military.

In conflict-torn or fragmented countries such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, however, the armies and militias cooperate, coexist or compete within the state boundaries. Anti-pandemic policies are being implemented only partially by traditional military institutions, but also by complex military structures resulting from security hybridization between state and non-state actors. In areas with multiple security players, the response to COVID-19 results so far in, at best, an uncoordinated convergence of policies among governments, de facto authorities and rebels. This is likely to incentivize centrifugal forces and decentralization from below.[3]

In Iraq, for instance, President Barham Salih launched an anti-pandemic initiative “for the defense of the homeland”, the army ordered a 50% reduction in on-duty personnel and women were granted extended leave;[4] Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani issued a fatwa declaring the fight against COVID-19 a collective obligation (wajib kifai), the peshmerga forces patrol the streets of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to implement the curfew. As part of Salih’s initiative, the Hashd al Shaabi are engaged in sanitization efforts, medical assistance and in the provision of field hospitals, assisting also the army to enforce the curfew across the country;[5] Muqtada Al Sadr exhorted his followers, at last, to comply with anti-crowd measures. In Syria, the army suspended recruitment and the penalties for those avoiding conscription; in the Kurdish held northeast, Syrian Democratic Forces closed schools, border crossings and limited public events, although they did not halt conscription. In Libya, both of the warring coalitions imposed lockdowns and curfews, while actually accelerating the fighting in the midst of the crisis. In Lebanon, both the government and Hezbollah organized emergency plans that are enforced, respectively, by the internal security forces, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Hezbollah, who test all the fighters coming from and leaving for Syria.

The case of Yemen does show a formal convergence of policies, since the internationally-recognized government and the de facto authority of the Houthis have opted for similar emergency choices. But they show two different patterns of security governance: centralized (the Houthis) vs multiple (the recognized government). In the areas held by the Houthis, security governance is monopolized by the “supervisors” (see below), who answer only to the governorate-level supervisor and report directly to the movement’s leader. Conversely, security governance in the territories formally under the recognized government is performed by a number of competing security players, who pursue different and often conflictual political interests at a local level.

Yemen has registered only one case of COVID-19 as of 10 April 2020 (in coastal Hadhramawt), but a Yemeni response to the pandemic would not be manageable. First, the World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 142 attacks against hospitals since 2015, with less than 50% of the health facilities now functioning at capacity.[6] Second, there is no coordination due to the existence of two health ministries in opposed state authorities. The areas formally held by the recognized government have (1) a variety of security providers operating on the same territory (multiple security governance) and (2) governorates and local authorities with conflicting political allegiances and agendas with respect to the recognized government, all taking part in decision-making (multilevel security governance).

There are clear signs of convergence. Both the government and the de facto authority of the Houthis launched bureaucratic institutions to handle the health crisis: in Aden, the government established the Supreme National Emergency Committee for Coronavirus; in Sanaa, the Houthis organized their Supreme Committee for Epidemics Control.[7] Both the  government and the Houthis halted flights from and to Yemen (included the UN flights from/to Sanaa), with land crossings opened only for humanitarian and commercial shipments. Both the government and the de facto authority closed schools, stopped prayers at mosques, limited public gatherings, began regulating markets and shops to reduce crowds, and organized quarantine facilities. About 800 prisoners have been released so far by the Houthis and the government as a preventive measure to reduce the spread of the infection.[8] The government allocated an emergency budget to support the health sector, while the Houthis reduced the number of the public sector employees and private workers by 80% (with the exception of the health, interior, defense and intelligence).[9]

The Yemeni government and the Sanaa-based de facto authority differ significantly in security governance, however, in ways which could influence how the potential pandemic would be handled. In the territories controlled by the Houthis, security governance is centralized under the Houthi’s core leadership. Security enforcement is monopolized by the supervisors (musharafeen): they work at the interplay between security provision and adjudication. The supervisors rule on a hierarchical “shadow system”, since their authority exceeds that of institutions (including the self-proclaimed government): they answer only to the governorate-level supervisor and report directly to the office of the leader, Abdel Malek Al Houthi. The supervisors come predominantly from Saada and Hajja governorates (home of the Northern insurgents) and belong to the Houthi movement. The centralized approach strongly emphasizes how the Houthi movement and militia have transformed from rebel to de facto authority.

Since 2015, traditional security providers have been marginalized or had to change their role. For instance, tribal chiefs (shuyyukh) lost their prominent position in security provision and enforcement, as well as the police forces were subjugated to the supervisors. The case of the aqils exemplifies how the Houthis reshaped security relations. Aqils are locally-elected representatives linking state security providers with the community: they perform police tasks in rural areas and the Yemeni law (13/2001) defines them as justice enforcement officers.[10] But in the territories under the Houthi control, the aqils had to adapt their tasks, thus shifting from community-level security provision to acting like informants of the supervisors. Therefore, aqils are not challengers of the Houthis’ centralized pattern of security governance, which should contribute to forging a coherent response to the pandemic.

In pro-government areas and where the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) has the upper hand, many security providers (such as military and police officers and tribal chiefs) vie for local security governance in the same territory. Some tribes try to continue with self-governance despite external powers’ interferences, as in the peripheral Mahra governorate. The multiplicity of security actors shapes uncoordinated, fluid and often competitive patterns of security enforcement and provision. This is likely to undermine the response against COVID-19, since local authorities are called to play a decisive role in the identification of cases and in the implementation of emergency measures.

In these areas formally held by the recognized government, Yemen’s state multilevel architecture, made of central government, governors and local councils, lacks coordination. In fact, these institutions now have competing political allegiances and agendas. During Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency, the Local Authorities Law (LAL, n°4/2000) strengthened centralized authority through formal decentralization: despite the presence of a voting mechanism, Saleh appointed loyalist governors by decree. With the outbreak of the 2015 civil war, most of the local authorities collapsed since they mirrored political divisions; they lost much of their budget and capacity, especially in Houthis-held areas.

The COVID-19 crisis sheds light on the dysfunctional relationship between what remains of the central state and local authorities. For instance, the local authorities of Marib, Taiz, Mukalla, Sayun, Al Mahra and Shabwa each established an emergency committee and drafted preventive plans to implement government measures. Trying to raise public awareness about the virus, they partnered with local activists in urban centres (as Aden, Taiz and in Hadhramawt) for awareness campaigns. However, local authorities are often not able to practically translate government measures and sometimes act autonomously. For instance, the Yemeni minister for endowments and guidance suspended the directors of many offices at the governorate level since they failed to comply with the ministry’s ban on Friday prayers and mosques. The governor of Hadhramawt and commander of the second military zone, General Faraj Al Bahsani, declared the state of emergency and a night curfew during a televised speech, asking the police to prevent public gatherings. After the first case of COVID-19 was registered in the port town of Ash-Shihr, the governor imposed a day-time curfew in Ash Shihr and neighbouring cities, closing the port for one week; the governors of Shabwa and Al Mahra ordered the immediate closure of the borders with Hadhramawt. The local authorities of Shabwa released forty-three prisoners to reduce the risk of contagion for the prison population, after a committee established by the governor decided to free those who had already served at least 75% of the sentences.[11]

Finally, a comparison between the governance of the recognized government and the  governance of the de facto Houthi authority vis-à-vis the pandemic crisis reveals something on the evolving state capacity in Yemen, but also about  “counterstate” authority. Governance has three dimensions: rule-making, rule-enforcing, goods and services provision.[12] With regard to COVID-19, the Yemeni-recognized government and the Houthis opted for similar rule-making, choosing converging policies. On rule-enforcing, the Houthis’ centralized pattern of security governance limits internal contrasts with respect to the uncoordinated, often competing scheme of multiple security governance shown by the government. But the Houthis have limited resources for security provisions, as Iran is also severely hit by the pandemic, while the government can still rely on oil/gas fields control and donors’ funding (Saudi Arabia and the UAE). If state capacity further declines due to the health emergency, other authorities would have many possibilities to establish alternative forms of governance on the ground.

In the medium-long term, the COVID-19 related state of emergency is likely to strengthen centrifugal forces and decentralization from below in conflict-torn countries like Yemen. The presence/threat of the pandemic alters resources allocation, impacting state capacity, and thus allows local forms of authority to gain power. The suspension of conscription (ex. in Syria) and the reduction of the military personnel (ex. in Iraq) and budget are likely to favour the recruitment by militias: many combatants could return or join armed non state groups for a salary and a status.

In Yemen, convergent policies to face the health crisis are implemented without coordination between the government and the de facto authority of the Northern Shia movement.  The Houthis follow a centralized pattern of security governance. Conversely, the recognized government sees competing security providers on the same territory.  A health crisis in Yemen would diminish prospects for a nationwide ceasefire, since it could trigger further political fragmentation within the recognized government side, as in the other conflict-torn Arab countries.  The Houthis advanced militarily in government-held oil/gas-rich strategic areas (Marib) and continue to fight despite the start of a two-week Saudi unilateral ceasefire:  recognized institutions cannot accept this balance of forces. In such a framework, decentralization emerges as a rising bottom-up phenomenon in fragmented countries, rather than a top-down concession: the implosion of state capacity empowers local governance experiments, and some of them can have a “rebel face” opposed to the legitimate authorities. The government and its local authorities have been gradually shifting from a polycentric scheme of governance, based on expected cooperation,[13] towards competition and subtle conflict. With timely and local responses needed, the looming health emergency is likely to accelerate this trend. Even if the response is effective, the deployment of the armies to enforce lockdowns and curfews in authoritarian contexts can turn into a weapon of social control, generating lasting repression and militarization.


[1] Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, Rebel Rulers. Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War, Cornell University Press, 2012.

[2] Ana Arjona, “Institutions, Civilian Resistance and Wartime Social Order: A Process driven Natural Experiment in the Colombian Civil War”, Latin American Politics and Society, Vol. 58, 3, Fall 2016, pp. 99-122; Ana Arjona, Rebelocracy: Social Order in the Colombian Civil War, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[3] Rebel governance refers here to a range of possibilities from “elaborately patterned relationships” to “the absence of any patterned activity”. Nelson Kasfir, Dilemmas of popular support in guerrilla war: the National Resistance Army in Uganda, 1981-86, Laboratory in Comparative Ethnic Processes, Los Angeles, 2002, p.4.

[4] Omar Akour and Nasser Karimi, Air raid sirens have echoed across Jordan’s capital to mark a three-day curfew, Associated Press, 22 March 2020.

[5] Tamer Badawi, Iraq’s PMU throws weight behind countering COVID-19, Al Monitor, 8 April 2020.

[6] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Yemen: UN humanitarian coordinator condemns attack at hospital, 18 March 2020.

[7] Author’s conversation with a Yemen-expert journalist, 11 April 2020.

[8] Al Masdar Online, “Yemen frees nearly 800 prisoners as country braces for spread of coronavirus”, 5 April 2020.

[9] Debriefer, Houthis decide staff reduction in public, private institutions, 22 March 2020.

[10] Eleonora Ardemagni, Ahmed Nagi and Mareike Transfeld, Shuyyukh, Policemen and Supervisors: Yemen’s Competing Security Providers, Italian Institute for International Political Studies-Carnegie Middle East Center-Yemen Polling Center Analysis, 26 March 2020.

[11] See Ali Al Sakani, Across Yemen local authorities prepare for potential spread of coronavirus, Al Masdar Online, 26 March 2020.

[12] Cyanne E. Loyle et. al., “Ruling Rebellions: Learning about governance from rebel groups”, article for the PELIO program, Working Group on Non-State Actor Governance, at the Ostrom Workshop on Rebel Governance and Legitimacy, Indiana University, Bloomington, 23 May 2019.

[13] Nelson Kasfir, Georg Frerks and Niels Terpstra, “Introduction: Armed Groups and Multi-layered Governance”, Civil Wars, 19:3, 257-278.