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What the hell just happened in Yemen, explained

Houthi rebels outside of Yemeni Government TV offices in Sana'a.
Houthi rebels outside of Yemeni Government TV offices in Sana'a.
(Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After about two days of fighting in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, members of a Yemeni militant group took control of the presidential palace on Tuesday. Though the Houthi rebels insist they haven't overthrown President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the fact that they've got guards stationed outside his house makes it pretty clear that they've taken charge.

What's more, the Houthis aren't even the only rebels in Yemen. There's a whole other rebellion in Yemen's south, which is led by a particularly dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Here's a brief guide to Yemen's crisis, what happened, and why.

An insurgent movement called the Houthis stormed the capital

houthi controlled territory in Yemen as of 2010

Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen in 2010. Dark red means Houthi-controlled, red is Houthi-contested, light red means some Houthi forces were present in the area. (Kermanshahi)

The chaos in Sana'a didn't come out of nowhere. The Houthis have been active in the country for years, and had been fighting against elements of the national military for several days before occupying huge chunks of Sana'a. They've grown in strength since 2011, and that explains why they're strong enough to overwhelm the government in its own capital.

The Houthis take their name from a man named Hussein al-Houthi, who founded a small group that would eventually morph into the Houthis in the early-to-mid 90s. But the group is better understood by looking at the sectarian and political problems that animate it. The Houthi movement is aligned with a branch of Islam known as Zaydi — a Yemeni Shia sect. Zaydis are a minority group in majority-Sunni Yemen, and the Houthi movement militarized at least in part as a response to oppression of Zaydis.

The Houthis have fought the government on-and-off since 2004, and were big supporters of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a dictator who ruled for 20 years (he's since stepped down). But, as Towson University's Charles Schmitz explains, the 2011 American-backed deal that replaced Saleh with Hadi (who is nominally leading a transitional government on the way to democratic elections) didn't satisfy the Houthis.

The Houthis "had no representation in the transitional government," Schmitz writes, so they "regard the transitional government as no different from the old regime that conducted wars against them — in other words, a body that cannot be trusted."

The Houthi rebellion continued — culminating in the Houthis seizing the presidential palace on Tuesday.

The failures of Yemen's government are part of how the crisis went on so long and got so bad

houthi militants in Sanaa

Houthi militants on guard in Sanaa. (Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Unlike many rebels, the Houthis haven't historically wanted to topple the Yemeni government or secede from Yemen. The military campaign in Sana'a has had at least three immediate objectives. First, they want to install Houthis and Houthi sympathizers in top government offices. Second, they want to cancel cuts in fuel subsidies that hurt Houthi constituents in northern Yemen. Third, Yemen's constitution is currently being drafted, and the Houthis want to use military pressure to ensure that the final document ends up being favorable to their interests.

So how did these relatively modest demands end up leading to a rebel takeover of parts of the capital? To understand that, you have to understand the Yemeni government's failures.

Yemen's government isn't just Sunni-dominated: it's also astonishingly weak and ineffective. The poverty rate hit 54.5 percent in 2012, and 45 percent of Yemenis have trouble getting enough food. The Yemeni government is the 10th most corrupt in the world, according to Transparency International. The country is host to a large number of militant groups, owing in part to insecurity and weak governance, and some members of its military are more loyal to militias than to the actual government.

The Yemeni government's feeble attempts to fix this insecurity have merely fueled the Houthi uprising. From March 2013 to January 2014, the Yemeni government held a meeting called the National Dialogue Council (NDC) as a first step toward building a new government that would satisfy everyone and end the violence. But the NDC barely represented Houthis and basically just extended the current government's terms.

"If the NDC had not handpicked selected Houthis as interlocutors...and had instead pursued a genuine democratic, peace settlement," Yemeni analyst Farea al-Muslimi writes in Foreign Affairs, "the insurgency would be weaker today."

The Houthis responded in mid-late 2014 by demonstrating against the current cabinet and the government's policy on fuel subsidies. The protests escalated into fighting, which spread to Sana'a by September 18.

Houthi troops defeated the Yemeni army and killed military officers with ties to Sunni militias; some Yemeni troops simply defected. Since September, the New York Times reports, the Houthi movement "has consolidated its control in the capital."

In the most recent escalation, Houthi fighters handily defeated Yemeni government forces in Sana'a. According to Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the military moves are designed to put pressure on President Hadi to implement the Houthis' preferred constitutional policies and government reforms. Al-Houthi said that they weren't looking to depose Hadi, but added that "all necessary measures will be open" if Hadi doesn't comply with their demands.

In other words, it looks like the Houthis are willing to use as much force as they deem necessary to get the political outcomes they want.

There's a separate al-Qaeda rebellion in the south

yemeni soldiers yemen AQAP

Yemen soldiers engage al-Qaeda forces during a May offensive. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

As if the Houthi movement wasn't enough, southern Yemen plays host to an entirely separate Sunni Islamist rebellion. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the driving force here, along with Ansar al-Sharia, a group that's either simply an extension of AQAP or affiliated with it.

The weakness of the Yemeni government and broad national insecurity, as discussed above, has allowed AQAP to fester here. While Yemeni government offensives and a US bombing campaign have pushed AQAP out the most populated areas in southern Yemen, the group still has a hold a lot of territory in the rural areas of the region. The US National Counterterrorism Center has called AQAP the terrorist group "most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States."

The two rebellions are not directly linked, but the Yemeni government's inability to fight informs its failures against the other, and the weaker that the government gets, the easier it will be for both groups to grow unchecked.

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