The conflict, or should one say, the conflicts in Yemen arise from a mosaic of reasons.
On the surface, the ongoing armed conflict in the country was sparked by a clash in 2004 between government security forces and a group of students protesting the war in Iraq and the deployment of US forces there. The protesters were led by a Zeidi cleric by the name of Hussain al-Huthi, who was also a member of Parliament at the time. Huthi was later killed in an ambush by government forces. The issue of Iraq and the ongoing war there is therefore one factor in the conflict in Yemen.
The bigger picture of a conflict that has grown relentlessly since then, however, needs to incorporate the fact that Yemen lacks fully fledged democratic institutions and is structured to be effectively governed by one man, namely President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who happens also to be the leader of the Hashid tribe. The Zeidi people, who sparked the conflict with their protest against the war in Iraq, are a Shi ite minority who harbor their own grievances against the central government. They were obviously ready to explode at the first spark and the war in Iraq provided that spark.
Yet the extent of the crisis in Yemen does not end there. Recent heavy-handed bombings of Huthi strongholds in Dhahian, al-Mahader and al-Ghabeir have caused anger to spread across the country, especially after about 85,000 Saada residents fled the fighting and the government bombardments, in the process triggering a massive humanitarian crisis and wider dissatisfaction. The 750,000 residents of Saada itself began to suffer from malnutrition when government forces besieged and isolated the rebellious city. The tribal feature of the conflict was further reinforced when a so-called citizens army was proclaimed by the government, composed mostly of Hashid tribesmen.
Accusations leveled by the central government in Sanaa that Libya and Iran were supporting the rebellion gave the conflict a regional dimension as well.
Certainly, Saudi Arabia is viewed as siding with President Saleh. Mediation efforts were not in short supply but all of them foundered almost as soon as they were launched. Qatar tried first and longest, in June of last year, but that effort unraveled in January this year, allegedly because the government reneged on its pledges to vacate certain areas belonging to the rebels.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield about 400 rebels have taken refuge in Bani Hushaish, a city of 75,000 people. Government forces are determined to drive them out and recently began a series of bombardments and military strikes to dislodge them. This military effort is still going on.
The full significance of the unfolding Yemeni conflict is that it is a template for potential conflicts in other parts of the Arab world. Yemen shares many features common to other Arab countries, with its tribal nature, sectarian divisions and the lack of democracy. The interplay of regional politics in the conflict is also not unique to Yemen. The central government s determination to maintain its territorial unity is clearly a legitimate goal. Nevertheless, the means undertaken to protect and consolidate that unity have entailed violations of the civil and political rights of certain ethnic, religious and tribal groups.
The broader issue raised by the Yemeni conflict is how to construct an Arab nation-state where the political and sociological terrain is a peaceful hybrid of religious, tribal and ethnic differences. What is happening in Yemen is essentially a scenario of what can happen elsewhere in the Arab world. The right to self-determination is one of the most vexing and troublesome issues confronting states across the globe. How to reconcile states rights with the right of peoples of different religions and backgrounds to determine their own future is an issue that dominates human rights conferences until this day, and, as Yemen shows, there is no clear answer yet.
Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org