Too often depicted as yet another arena in the proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the Yemeni conflict has much more to do with a domestic struggle for power rather than sectarian – and supposedly archaic – rivalries. But with the opening of a new round of conflict after the 2011 Arab Spring, and even more after the 2015 Saudi-led intervention, the conflict underwent a dynamic of “sectarianisation”, or politicization of religious identities.
The military expansion of the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh into Southern Yemen in February 2015, after the flight of president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to Aden, exacerbated the north-south division of the country, highlighting its fragmentation. This led to a strong military response in the South to what appeared to be a new invasion by Northern forces after the 1994 war: from that moment on, new military and political orientations have risen in the South, as well as increased popular support for separatism.
After Houthi rebels executed a coup against the government in January 2015, and marched towards Aden, absorbing the territory of the internationally-recognized President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Saudi-led coalition launched a military campaign in Yemen (26 March 2015), under the declared aim of reinstating the legitimate government and protecting its southern borders. From that moment on, the conflict has escalated and fighting fronts extended, resulting in a complex war that has so far defied all efforts at peacemaking.
The rise of the Houthi upended the tribal political alliances that formed the backbone of republican Yemen in the north but without altering the dominance of tribes and tribalism. The Houthi adroitly manipulated local tribal politics in the north during many years of conflict to defeat the Houthi enemies in the tribal leadership that had dominated the north under the Saleh regime. At the same time, the Houthi attacked the political bases of the Islah party and the allied military forces of Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar.
Yemen’s tribal army does not exist anymore, replaced by a plethora of militias, sometimes institutionalised: only a federal-based reform of the security sector could limit the rising territorial power of warlords. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Centre in 2017 sheds further light on this point: at the question “Who brings security in this area?”, only 16% of Yemenis all over the country answer “the police/security authorities”.
“That’s what we will be working on, to follow the president’s instructions. We will try to complete all the phases by the end of 2018 or early 2019”, said Petroleum Minister Tarek El Molla with great fanfare. It was on February 1, at the inauguration of the first phase of developing Zohr, the giant offshore gas field near the Egyptian coast. Zohr is estimated to have a reserve of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the largest in the Mediterranean.
The United States looks at the upcoming Egyptian presidential elections with mixed – although increasingly critical – feelings. During his recent state visit to the Middle East, at the end of January, Vice President Mike Pence paid traditional lip service to Cairo’s strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, confirming President Trump’s will to re-establish good political relations “after a time when our countries seemed to be drifting apart”.
Six years after the first free elections in Egypt’s post-Arab uprisings era, the Persian Gulf media’s attention to the country’s presidential election has considerably changed. Although the Gulf countries’ political support for Egypt remains unchanged – also expressed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day visit to Cairo earlier this month in which he reaffirmed the highest level of bilateral cooperation – this election appears to be less important for Cairo’s Arab allies.
Later this month Egypt will witness its third presidential election since 2012. With only two candidates and very limited competition, there is no doubt that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is looking at a second term in office. The cornerstone of the Egyptian president’s first term in office was countering terrorism and radicalization. It is fair to say that Egypt’s war against terrorism and radical/jihadist Islam had an impact on numerous domestic policies as well as on Egypt’s foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates, three close allies, are building a new regional security order and want Israel on board. The Gulf countries need it for countering Iran, Egypt needs it for the Mediterranean’s security. Nevertheless, this requires a solution to the Palestinian issue.
Seven years after the popular uprising that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, political activism continues to play the prominent role it had in the 18-day anti-regime demonstrations (25 January - 11 February 2011) and the subsequent democratic transition, which soon got stuck.
While Egypt approaches the upcoming presidential elections with an almost uncompetitive political sphere, the spectrum of violence in Egypt has become more diverse over the last few years. It has developed to the extent that we could speak of a “market of violence” among different groups who seek to maximize their respective market shares.