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Yemen needs more than military parades and anniversary parties

Recent Houthi celebrations are a bit tone deaf — the people here need food and salaries — and the ceasefire is expiring in just over a week.

Analysis | Middle East

SANA'A, YEMEN — Houthi helicopters hovering over the capital on Wednesday morning woke Omar Hanash at 9 a.m. The rebels had declared the day a public holiday so people could celebrate the 8th anniversary of the Houthi take-over of the capital, but Hanash decided to go to the streets in the Sawan area of Sana'a instead to collect bottles and cartons to be used as firewood.

"I live on a food basket from the United Nations and I use the cartons as firewood because I can't afford cooking gas," Hanash told Responsible Statecraft on the afternoon of Sept. 21. "Without the food basket, I would have been starved, and to go celebrating this situation is madness."

Hanash is one of over 23 million people the United Nations says need humanitarian assistance in Yemen today. According to the World Food Programme, the civil war there has made Yemen “the world's worst humanitarian crisis.” 

Hanash, who works as a public servant at the Cleaning and Improvement Fund, complained that Houthi authorities gave him a one-time payment of 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($36) in lieu of his actual salary. He and other public servants in Sana'a criticized Wednesday's military parade because they said their salaries have not been paid, and their economic situations have been moving from bad to worse.

"The Saudi war has weakened the Houthis using warplanes like F16, but the Houthis are parading with old-fashioned helicopters," said Hanash, 55.

There had been no Houthi-sponsored military parades since the Saudi intervention in March 2015, but once the UN-brokered truce went into effect on April 2, the rebel group has hosted several such events — in Dhamar, Amran, Hodeidah, and Sana'a. The UN  expressed concern about the parade in Hodeidah and considered it a violation of the Hodeidah Agreement.

The September parade in Sana'a was the first time the Houthis displayed helicopters captured from the internationally recognized government when they took over the capital city eight years ago. Although the Saudi-led coalition targeted warplanes at Sana'a Airport in that time, it is not clear yet where the Houthis kept these helicopters safe.

Video footage for one helicopter showed it dropping sweets to celebrate what Houthis call the "21 September Revolution" when they led the uprising that forced the government in Sana's, led by President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to resign.

"If they are honest, they will distribute wheat for starving people begging at Sana'a streets," Ali, who agreed to give his first name, told Responsible Statecraft in Sana'a. "My father is a retired officer without a salary since 2017 and he insults Houthis day and night."

Following the Houthis' takeover of Sana'a, they signed a Peace and National Partnership Agreement with their rivals under the auspices of the United Nations. But their negotiations with Yemeni parties over executing its terms ended with Houthis clashing with Presidential Guards in January 2015 when they surrounded the presidential palace and put Hadi under house arrest.

On Jan. 23, 2015, Hadi played his final card and announced his resignation. On Feb. 10, 2015, the United States closed its embassy in Sana'a and Reuters reported "U.S. officials in Washington who confirmed the embassy would close because of the unpredictable security situation in a country where a rebel group has seized control of the capital, Sana'a."

However, former president Hadi escaped Houthis' house arrest in Sana'a and fled to Aden on Feb. 21. He rescinded his resignation and insists that he is still the president.

This week, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein published an article at Foreign Policy, saying the "Houthis have a poor track record in negotiations. But giving up on negotiating with them isn’t an option."

Meanwhile,the U.S. envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking has been working on efforts to extend and expand the current UN-brokered truce in Yemen between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia for another six months. 

The State Department said Lenderking returned to Washington on Sept. 14 from travel to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Oman.

“All counterparts expressed their support for an expanded truce agreement that includes paying civil servants, improving freedom of movement through road openings, moving fuel quickly through the ports, and expanding commercial flights from Sana’a airport," the State Department said in a statement. "The United States remains committed to advancing efforts to secure a durable and inclusive peace agreement for all Yemenis that includes their calls for justice and accountability."

The Houthis' conditions for expanding the truce is that public servants in areas under their control be paid salaries from revenues of the oil and gas that the internationally recognized government sells. However, the Saudi-backed government says Houthis should pay the salaries from revenues of Hodeidah port under Houthis' control.

This is just one potential roadblock as Yemen remains at a crossroads ahead of the expiring truce on October 2. At that point the parties will have to choose the fate of this embattled nation — war or peace. They also have to choose the people — feeding them, paying their salaries, allowing them to rebuild. This will be a long journey.

Houthi supporters rally to mark the Ashura day in Sanaa, Yemen August 8, 2022. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah
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