Last week the Houthis, an aggressive Shia militant group, staged a coup in Yemen.
Houthis surrounded the Presidential Palace in Sanaa and kidnapped the president’s chief of staff. (Kidnapping is an integral part of Yemeni politics.) Initially it seemed the Yemeni president, A. R. M. Hadi, might be able to negotiate a peace deal with the Houthis. But it soon became clear that the militants had already taken control of about 70 percent of the Yemeni military capability and had no interest in negotiation.
The only certainty in Yemen today is that the future will be volatile and difficult for average Yemenis.
Here is a rundown of the major players.
1. Despite support from America, the weak Yemeni government has been unable to balance all the country’s factions. Before the Arab Spring uprisings, the country was long run by dictator A. A. Saleh, who infamously described ruling Yemen as “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Saleh was overthrown in 2012, yet he continues to maintain a lot of influence in the nation's affairs. The new president, A. R. M. Hadi, was only supposed to preside over the government briefly while Yemen developed its constitution and held elections. That process has been long, difficult, and frequently interrupted by instability. As a result, a legitimate elected government has yet to be established.
2. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operates mostly in southern Yemen. Yemenis have actually suffered just as much, if not more, than Westerners at the hands of AQAP. AQAP has long been wreaking havoc in Yemen with constant violent attacks against the American-backed Yemeni government. The same week AQAP claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris, they also detonated a bomb outside a police college in Sanaa that killed almost 40 innocent people. Though large numbers of Yemenis do not like AQAP’s presence in their country, AQAP is deeply intertwined with the southern tribes who harbor them more for political and security reasons than for ideological ones.
3. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia group from northern Yemen. (Zaydi Shias are not of the same sect of Shia Islam as Iranians.) The Houthis have long tried to take over Yemen, but until his toppling, President Saleh was able to contain them in the northernmost areas of the country. Houthis are known to distribute anti-Christian tracts, and their slogan “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews!” is spray-painted on walls across northern Yemen. They have established a new constitution for Yemen and are actively trying to govern the country.
4. The Southern Secessionist Movement has been simmering since 2007. Now that the Houthis appear to be running things in Sanaa, the south has declared its independence and is refusing orders from the capital.
5. The United States has been carrying out drone attacks on suspected AQAP militants. They generally hit their intended targets, and Yemenis are not ungrateful for the help containing AQAP. But innocent civilians have been collateral damage as well. Yemenis may not care for AQAP, but they are increasingly horrified by American bombs falling on them unexpectedly from the sky. Now that the friendly Yemeni government seems to have fallen, America must now decide who its new partner in the country will be. The Houthis and AQAP agree on one thing: they hate America and desire to drive all things Western out of the Arabian Peninsula.
6. Iran and Saudi Arabia also each has an interest in the stability of Yemen. Saudi Arabia wants a stable country to its south, and has a history of helping to prop up the central Yemeni government and its economy. On the other hand, Iran has much in common with the Zaydi Shia Houthis. They have been supplying weapons to the Houthis, and there is no doubt that Iran aspires to secure a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
7. Yemeni Christians are an ancient presence in the area, and may have shared the gospel of Jesus with the Prophet Muhammad. In the 5th century, Byzantine Christians lived in a northern Yemeni town called Najran, not far from where the Houthis are based today. A harsh Jewish ruler massacred thousands of Christians by throwing them into a pit of fire. Their faithfulness in the face of martyrdom is even testified to in the Qur'an (85:4-8). Muslim tradition teaches that surviving Christians from Najran discussed matters of faith with the Muslim prophet Muhammad, rejected his false teachings about Christ, and even prayed Christian prayers in a mosque in Medina.
Najran, as a bustling Christian beacon in the Arabian Peninsula, faded into history. But the Arab church can draw hope from the Najranite sacrifices and identify strongly with their persecution. They pray for the day when many spiritual descendants of Najran fill Yemen and the whole Arabian Peninsula.