The decline of Yemen's Islamist al-Islah party
The conflict in Yemen is about to claim yet another casualty. The Muslim Brotherhood affiliate al-Islah party is in retreat across the south, and pressure mounts in both Mareb and Taiz.
The near monopoly held by Islah within the legitimate government over the past seven years has collapsed as the party is increasingly blamed for years of failures against the Houthi movement. Rivals accuse the party of apathy and widespread corruption, along with ties to terrorist elements and secret cooperation with the Houthis.
Islah’s decline undoubtedly began in August 2019 as tensions escalated in the interim capital of Aden. Relations between then-president Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC) were tense amid deteriorating economic conditions and growing threats from the Houthis.
Hostilities reached a boiling point when Islah-affiliated Presidential Guard elements clashed with civilians during the funeral procession for Commander Munir Mahmoud ‘Abu Yamama’ al-Mashali, killed by a Houthi drone strike during a graduation ceremony.
"Since the Arab Spring, Islah's influence has diminished from senior partners in government and a pillar of Hadi's legitimacy to a marginalised obstructionist party"
Clashes led to mediation by Saudi Arabia and the signing of the Riyadh Agreement on 5 November 2019, signalling the beginning of a shift in the balance of power among Houthi rival factions.
The situation further deteriorated as parties obstructed the full implementation of the Riyadh Agreement, with Shabwa at the centre of the storm. The conflict between the STC and Islah simmered through 2020 as then Shabwa governor, Mohammed bin Adio, ordered local security forces to crack down on civilian protesters and arrested STC activists in the province.
Bin Adio, an Islah affiliate, was accused of corruption along with facilitating the smuggling of oil and capture of revenue. Tensions once again peaked in November 2021 when Houthi elements marched into western Shabwa and took control of the Bayhan district, as southerners accused bin Adio and Islah affiliated forces of facilitating the advance without any resistance.
Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khaled al-Yemany, recognises that “Islah [today] faces a well-coordinated rival that is challenging…historical abilities to manoeuvre any situation”. Bin Adio was replaced in December 2021 by president Hadi in accordance with the Riyadh Agreement.
Rivals in coalition
While the Riyadh Agreement primarily aimed at uniting Yemeni forces against Houthis, the announcement of a new coalition government in December 2021 focused on de-escalating tensions between political factions. Islah struggled to hold on to their monopoly over the government, turning into a fight for survival.
The new coalition government under president Hadi was unable to address the economic crisis, and national armed forces suffered further setbacks against the Houthis in al-Baydha, Mareb, and Shabwa. Islah took most of the blame.
Al-Yemany points out that the situation paved the way for “all new parties emerging during this conflict [raising] the banner against the Muslim Brotherhood and believe if this war is won it is won against the Muslim Brotherhood”.
The coalition government announced in December 2020 not only reduced the number of seats in the Cabinet from thirty-five to twenty-five including the prime minister, but also for the first time granted the STC five seats. While observers noted a number of shortcomings in the new power-sharing equation, the two most notable shifts were a reduced number of Hadi loyalists and Islah affiliates.
The inclusion of the STC recognised the new actor as a legitimate representative of the southern peoples and their share of responsibility in addressing the economic and humanitarian crises. This also allowed the STC to monitor the role of Islah affiliates within the government, strengthening their arguments against corruption and mistreatment of civilians in the south.
Ultimately, a failure to address various crises by the coalition government in 2021 and further losses to Houthis led to the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) in April 2022.
Vulnerabilities weakened Islah within the coalition, but as Yemeni analyst Abd al-Nasser Muwadah points out, the party's strength lies in the fact that “Islah politics focus on benefits for the party and this maintains cohesion among members”.
Its rigid cohesion and loyalty to party agenda undoubtedly obstruct relations within coalitions. “It is very difficult to co-opt Islah party members, this prevents factions from breaking away,” said al-Muwadah.
"The near monopoly held by Islah within the legitimate government over the past seven years has collapsed as the party is increasingly blamed for years of failures against the Houthi movement"
The establishment of the PLC during a dialogue conference hosted in Riyadh can be seen as a politically decapitating blow for Islah. Abdullah al-Alimi, Hadi’s former secretary, represents the Islamist party within the eight-member council.
He is not a high-ranking official in the party but has been an influential actor since Hadi was elected president in February 2012. Southerners view al-Alimi as an instrument of Islah corruption and anti-southern policies advanced by the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.
Having weakened Islah politically, in Shabwa and within the PLC, the next targets were military and security affiliates. This is where al-Yemany sees “Islah face[ing] a near check-mate situation today”.
Strongholds and survival
Since the Arab Spring, Islah’s influence has diminished from senior partners in government and a pillar of Hadi’s legitimacy to a marginalised obstructionist party. Their position is so compromised that its leadership launched a campaign attempting to deflect from accusations of corruption, links to terrorist groups, and alleged collaboration with the Houthis.
Al-Yemany highlighted Islah’s position as “maintaining strong influence in Mareb and Taiz, and losing it in Shabwa,” but as of last month, Islah military affiliates in Shabwa have been completely expelled.
Now their prominence in Sayyun, a base for the Second Regional Military Command, is under increasing pressure from local residents. Elements within Islah have condemned abandonment by Saudi Arabia, who had intervened in the lead-up to the Riyadh Agreement on the side of the Presidential Guard.
Interesting enough, even al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) warned Islah against trusting Saudi Arabia. Al-Muwadah pointed out that Islah’s leadership saw the alliance as “just needed” at the start of the conflict, while the party sees “Qatar as the real ally”.
Islah’s leader, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadumi, came under such pressure last month that he published a number of statements trying to extinguish the fire. The first spark came from a party statement condemning Shabwa governor Awadh al-Awlaki, raising the stakes in the conflict.
Then, as rumours surfaced of Abdullah al-Alimi’s possible resignation from the PLC, al-Yadumi made a series of statements on the importance of maintaining the coalition government, which again generated criticism based on Islah’s abrupt break with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in March 2011, seen as an example of betrayal.
No room for miscalculation
With a potential return to hostilities as the UN-brokered truce expired last week, Islah faces a difficult position amid escalation in Sayyun and a stalemate in Taiz. Islah faces a moment of compromise, where the party either withdraws in order to survive politically or decides to engage militarily to protect strategically vital territory in northern Hadramawt.
The perception of Saudi Arabia’s abandonment only adds challenges as the Muslim Brotherhood becomes a target of regional actors. In 2017, Saudi Arabia hosted a meeting between Islah’s leadership and then UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
"If Islah maintains any semblance of a party identity linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, it will undoubtedly attract further opposition among Yemeni rivals"
Islah leaders denounced the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, listed as a terrorist group by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in 2014, in a move to settle differences with the Gulf monarchies. Yet, their rivals in Yemen maintain that Islah remains a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and a threat to stability in the region.
If Islah maintains any semblance of a party identity linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, it will undoubtedly attract further opposition among Yemeni rivals. The party is also running out of allies as Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has denied support for any groups linked to the Brotherhood.
Although this is perceived as a major victory for Qatar’s neighbours, Yemeni parties remain sceptical over the relationship between Islah and Qatar. Islah cannot afford to further antagonise Yemen’s neighbours if it hopes to survive the transitional period and the fight against the Houthis.
Fernando Carvajal served on the UN Security Council Panel of Experts of Yemen from April 2017 to March 2019 as an armed groups and regional expert. He has nearly 20 years of experience conducting fieldwork in Yemen and is a specialist in Yemeni politics and tribal relations.
Follow him on Twitter: @CarvajalF