Reckoning with a Fractured Islamist Landscape in Yemen

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Adaptation Strategies of Islamist Parties and Movements  workshop held at George Washington University January 27, 2017. POMEPS Studies 26 is a collection of the memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

Much of the academic literature on Islamist movements before and during the upheavals of 2011 focused on the dynamics that led Islamists to participate (or not) in partisan politics and build political party organizations. In some cases, Islamists went all-in and built robust institutions, some opted for loose ties between movements and parties, and others rejected partisanship outright. Much, though by no means all, of this seemed responsive to the nature of incumbent regimes or transitional institutions. However, in no country in the Middle East has a single Islamist party eclipsed all other forms of Islamist activism, nor are Islamist parties – as such – politically ascendant today.Instead, scholars and policymakers must now confront the rather different question of whether and how Islamists who once engaged in partisan politics navigate shrinking electoral opportunities, increasingly fractured Islamist landscapes, and outright suppression. What do Islamist parties do when the benefits of – and, in some cases, opportunities for – participation shift so considerably? While this question should interest us intellectually, it also has clear policy significance. Just as international policymakers were somewhat slow to recognize the dynamics driving Islamist electoral participation, they now risk clinging to those Islamist parties that are “known entities” even as these groups struggle to maintain their own political relevance.

The recent trajectory of Yemen’s Islamist Islah party is an instructive example in this regard. In 2017, Yemen’s Islamist political landscape is characterized by several distinct political parties, militias aligned with rival Islamist groups, transnational militant organizations with and without local governance objectives, and at least one capable splinter organization claiming allegiance to none of the above.[1] And while this fracturing of the Islamist landscape is partially a function of the current (internationalized) civil war, now in its second year, it was arguably precipitated by the outsized empowerment of the Islah party during the 2012-14 transitional period. International efforts at a brokered peace continue to inflate Islah’s importance even as events on the ground continue to underscore its shrinking share of the political landscape. If this preference for known entities is concretized (again) in a new postwar settlement – as seems likely – it will continue to undermine the possibilities of sustainable peace in Yemen.

The Perils of Overstating Islah

Despite its history as the largest Islamist party in Yemen for more than two decades, Islah’s ties to its constituents were already more presumed than real in the run-up to the current civil war. As a part of a challenging cross-ideological opposition alliance since the mid-2000s, Islah was forced to focus much of its energy and an increasing share of its material resources on politics in the capital of Sana’a, at the expense of broader outreach.[2] This proved a serious miscalculation in a country where the majority still lives outside major urban centers. Its focus on campus politics was similarly elite-focused. The leadership cohort within the party that was most active in these urban centers and university campuses was tied to Muslim Brotherhood faction within the party, whereas salafi and tribal figures held more sway among peripheral populations but were neither ideologically tied nor practically committed to the party as an institution.[3] The 2011 uprising that led to President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh’s ouster shook up these dynamics somewhat, with the formation of loosely Islah-aligned militias (often referred to as “Islahi militias,” though this overstates the formality of their relationship to the party), and the party leadership’s struggle to articulate a meaningful relationship to a young and politically frustrated protest movement.

The temptations of elite-centric politics of the capital increased during the transitional period (2012-2014), when Islah became the largest beneficiary of the GCC-brokered unity structure. While Islah was formally one among equals in a six-member opposition coalition, it was widely considered the most significant member of that coalition. As protests against the opposition’s participation in the new unity government accelerated, the party leadership guarded itself against change from below by suspending its internal electoral processes, “locking in” figures who came to power under the old regime and preventing any reinvigoration of party leadership.[4]

The 2012 transitional framework that ushered former President Ali Abudullah Saleh from power included a sizable share of governing power for the Islah party, as part of a national unity government. Islah gained control over several ministries, which it consequently staffed with loyalists at the expense of the anti-corruption reforms that were promised. The transitional framework also guaranteed Islah substantial representation in the National Dialogue Conference.[5] To be fair, Islah was by no means alone in its scramble for the spoils of transition, but it was distinguishable from its allies in that (a) much of its prior legitimacy stemmed from a critique of corruption, and (b) its primary ideological adversary, the Houthi movement, was blocked from participation in transitional governance. This set the stage for the Houthis’ adoption of anti-corruption language as an effective mobilizational trope, putting Islah on the defensive. This, in turn, drove Islah toward an even more dependent relationship on its Gulf patrons, who have continued to ensure the party’s relevance in the eyes of international audiences.[6]

Early in the transitional process, fighting broke out between “Islah militias” and Houthi-backed forces in several Northern governorates, most notably around the city of Dammaj, home to a symbolically polarizing salafi school, Dar al-Ulum. Perhaps this armed conflict simply reflected the Houthis’ response to the disproportionate empowerment of Islah by transitional planners. However, the unrest also spoke to the well-established internal fissures within the party, whereby the political center (characterized by Muslim Brothers) exercised little power over its periphery and could not shape or contain action taken in its name. Laurent Bonneyfoy described “a disconnect…between the strategy of Islah’s Sana’a-based leaders and local Islahi actors.”[7] Less charitably, it is possible to imagine that centrist Islahis approached extralegal violence as they had in the 2000s – something that might both strain their alliances by also strengthen their hand in the medium term by intimidating opponents.[8] Under the increasingly fluid conditions of the transitional period, however, events did not follow the same course. Islah’s primary adversaries, the Houthis – unlike the Yemeni Socialist Party a decade earlier – were emboldened, not cowed, by such extrajudicial violence. The Houthis could fit this violence squarely within a narrative of antagonism and cultural dispossession, stemming from decades of Islah-sponsored and protected salafi evangelism in the Zaydi heartland.[9] It is no surprise, then, that when Houthi militias marched on Sana’a in September 2014, their first actions were not widespread sectarian violence, but rather the targeted suppression of Islahis and the demand for a share of the transitional pie.

By the time the transitional government eventually sought refuge in Riyadh and the Saudi-backed coalition launched full-scale war against the Houthi rebels in 2015, Islah had already largely lost the plot. Senior Islahis – including its most capable centrist, Muhammed Qahtan and dozens of others – were disappeared by the Houthis. Others joined President Hadi in Riyadh or issued their support for the war from elsewhere in the region (including Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman, financial mogul Hamid al-Ahmar, and General ‘Ali Muhsin). While some of these individuals continue to play a critical role in the current war and might be expected to be participate in post-war governance in some way, the Islah party’s political functions have been gradually disabled and are now eclipsed by the growing role of loosely-aligned militias, both within and outside the context of President Hadi’s “Popular Resistance” brigades.

Reconsidering Islah

Given the fracturing of the Islamist landscape on the ground and Islah’s loss of institutional capacity and message, there is no clear reason for the party – as such – to to play a substantial role in any future national unity government. But all indications suggest that Islahis are involved in negotiations, that negotiators regard the party’s role as self-evident, and that Islah will secure a place in any transitional government as the price of its loyalty to the Hadi coalition.

Unlike the last transitional framework, however, any negotiated settlement will by definition include some power for the Houthis and their allies, which will mean two things for Islah. First, Islah (like its Houthi adversaries) will find itself tainted by a war that has contributed to unprecedented sectarian polarization. Whereas Islah used to be able to attract at least some Zaydi conservatives on the basis of its Northern social foundations, and the Houthis could attract some support from Shafi’is Sunnis on the basis of its populist and anti-corruption rhetoric, this is unlikely to be the case moving forward. Additionaly, since Islah has historically struggled in the South, it will not likely exit the war as a “national party,” though to be fair, it is not clear that any faction will.

Second, Islah will enjoy a more contested position in government, with no clear monopoly over the kinds of ministries and policies typically of greatest interest to party-oriented Islamists. It will have to compete with Houthis and perhaps with a more coherent salafi faction (whether under the Rashad Union or some other organization, like the Hasm faction in Taiz, that emerges out of the war). In theory, competition could be good for the party, compelling it to rediscover its ideological core and advance and defend policy arguments. But in the absence of any reinvigorated leadership or internal party functions, it seems more likely to lead to jockeying for position among established (and unpopular) Islahi elites, in which case Islah should expect to enjoy less support and wield less power than in government than it did before the war.

Financial Empowerment, or Reconstruction Arms-Racing

One way that Islahis (if not Islah as an institution) may seek to recoup some of this loss of standing could come through the reconstruction process. There is already a concerted effort to ensure that whatever mediated agreement is put in place will “look to the private sector as an engine of growth and a guarantor of political transition,” capable of convincing “all segments of Yemeni society that they are stakeholders in a common endeavor.”[10] Islahis deep connections in Yemen’s private sector, and earlier conflicts’ history of politicized reconstruction could help planners anticipate some hazards of this approach.

More than a decade ago, when the Saleh regime fought a violent Houthi insurgency in the province of Saada that led to tremendous civilian displacement and destruction of infrastructure, the Islah Charitable Society was the primary organization granted government permits to enter the province and was the primary local partner of humanitarian organizations doing reconstruction work. This, in turn, fueled Houthi allegations of regime favoritism for (Sunni) Islamist organizations and contributed to the sectarianization of conflict in the far north at least a decade before the ultimate eruption of armed conflict between so-called “Islah militias” and Houthi militants.[11]

Today, postwar planners working to negotiate a settlement to the conflict are placing great faith in the private sector to generate widespread buy-in for another externally-brokered agreement. While those directly involved in the negotiations may prefer approaches to reconstruction that would focus on building a capable public sector, these options are considered unrealistic given “the reluctance of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – most of whom would likely play a final role in assisting Yemen’s post-conflict recovery – to participate in a pooled fund mechanism because of the loss of control over their aid and how it is disbursed.”[12] Instead, private sector-led approaches to reconstruction will likely enrich those private charities and businessmen tied to Islah who have close ties to the GCC states, and promote investment partnerships with the many infrastructure firms from the khaleeji capital that underwrite the Gulf regimes themselves.[13]

From Islah to Islahis

At this stage, a new transitional agreement and post-war reconstruction still feel perilously far-off. At Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, the war in Yemen warranted barely a mention, with Tillerson’s only stated commitment to “providing [Saudi Arabia] better targeting intelligence.” However, the first 100 days of the Trump administration have shown a clear preference to approach Yemen through a military, not diplomatic, lens.[14] Indeed, in the month of March alone, the United States carried out more than twice the number of airstrikes as in the year of 2016, and has committed an increasing number of Special Forces to ground operations.[15] To the extent that diplomacy is still on the agenda, Tillerson’s history as president of Exxon Yemen Inc. and the clear signals of continuing partnership the U.S. is sending Saudi Arabia suggest that the market-led, Gulf-friendly approach already in place will continue or deepen.

What this means in relation to Islah is that its privileged status is unlikely to be reevaluated. While Islah needs to play a role in the coming settlement in order to avoid positioning it as a transitional spoiler, its polarizing effects might be contained by a more realistic assessment of who the party – as a party – can actually claim to represent, and how the party is likely to function in the coming months. At the outset of the war, analysts cautioned that AQAP and ISIS would emerge, “as the Houthis’ sole competitor, if alternative Islamist movements, such as Islah are marginalized,” and argued that international actors would need to work “to prevent this dark scenario from happening.”[16] But today it is not clear that the movement has the coherence to play this kind of moderating role. While individual Islahis will be engaged in – and will undoubtedly profit from – whatever settlement may come, scholars and policymakers alike will need to reconsider the relevance of Islah as an organizational entity and begin to reckon with the genuinely fractured landscape of Islamism in this country in crisis.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon,” (IB Tauris, 2013).

[1] Political parties with distinct Islamist agendas include the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), the Rashad Union, and Ansar Allah, the Houthis’ political wing; numerous militias in different parts of the county claim fealty to Islah or the Houthis; both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State are operative in different parts of the country; most recently, at least one salafi organization has splintered off from President Hadi’s “Popular Resistance” and taken control of several ministries and much of Yemen’s largest and most politically divided city, in opposition to both the Hadi coalition (including Islah) and the Houthis. For a review of the role of ISIS and AQAP, see: International Crisis Group, “Exploiting Disorder: Al Qaeda and the Islamic State,” 14 March 2016. Accessed 11 January 2017. For more recent coverage of events in Taiz and the role of the Hasm faction, see: “Yemen Government Kicked Out of Taiz By Popular Resistance,” Middle East Eye, 17 December 2016. Accessed 11 January 2017.

[2]Sarah Phillips. Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis. London: Routledge (2011).

[3]Jillian Schwedler. Faith in Moderation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2006); Stacey Philbrick Yadav. Islamists and the State. London: IB Tauris (2013).

[4]Ala Qassem. “Five Barriers to Youth Inclusion, Decision-Making, and Leadership in Yemen’s Political Parties.” London: SaferWorld, December 2013. Accessed 4 April 2017.

[5]Erica Gaston. “Process Lessons Learned in Yemen’s National Dialogue.” Special Report 342. Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, February 2014. Accessed 4 April 2017.

[6]Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Sheila Carapico. 2014. “The Breakdown of the GCC Initiative.” Middle East Report 273 Accessed 4 April 2017.

[7]Laurent Bonnefoy. “The Islah Party in Yemen: Game Over?” Muftah, 27 February 2015. Accessed 12 January 2017.

[8]Stacey Philbrick Yadav. Islamists and the State. London: IB Tauris (2013). See especially the discussion in Chapter 5 of the role of takfir in managing intra-opposition power dynamics.

[9]Many people have written about this, but for a concise overview of the effects in the far north, see: Shelagh Weir. A Tribal Order. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press (2007), 296-306.

[10] “Yemen After the War,” Association of Arab Gulf States in Washington. 19 December 2016, 1-2. Accessed 12 January 2017.

[11]I first learned of the importance of the Islah Charitable Society to reconstruction work in Saada from UNICEF staff in 2005; see Islamists and the State, p. 53, 2013.

[12] AGSIW 2016, 4.

[13] Adam Hanieh has described the way in which GCC regimes effectively “subcontract” essential state-building functions to powerful business families, building a transnational class of khaleeji capital that cements the political foundations of the Gulf as an asymmetric but integrated whole. Adam Hanieh. Capitalism and Class in the Gulf Arab States. London: Palgrave, 2011.

[14]Zaid Jilani and Alex Emons. “Rex Tillerson Wants to Provide Saudi Arabia with More Help to Bomb Yemen.” The Intercept, 12 January 2017. Accessed 12 January 2017.

[15]Andrew Bruncombe. “Donald Trump Administration Orders 70 Airstrikes in Yemen – Twice As Many As 2016 Total.” The Independent, 4 April 2017. Accessed 6 April 2017.

[16]Bonnefoy 2015.