“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.”