The reasons behind Al-Islah’s weakness in Yemen

The reasons behind Al-Islah’s weakness in Yemen
Islah is slowly but surely losing the influence it once enjoyed in Yemeni politics
6 min read
28 November, 2014
Islah emerged under Saleh's regime [Khalid Fazaa/AFP]

The Yemeni Congregation for Reform, better known as Al-Islah party, was the most powerful political force in Yemen until a few months ago. However its influence is waning, despite the fact that it has advantages not available to any other Muslim Brotherhood branch in the region.

The party, which is made up of a tribal, Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi alliance, decided not to fight the Ansar Allah Movement (better known as the Houthis) in Sanaa, though it could call on armed tribal fighters, soldiers in Yemen's army, and a militia based in Al-Eman university, as it felt the balance of military power was not in its favour.

A difficult regional climate

An additional factor influencing the party’s decision not to fight was the regional climate of hostility towards the Brotherhood. This hostility is manifested through the anxiety of Gulf states about the Arab Spring and improved Western relations with Iran, as well as the international agenda to combat terrorism.

Islah’s decision to bow to the regional and internal storm surrounding it appears to be tactical and pragmatic, however it also indicates an internal crisis in the party because of its alignment with the Yemeni regime. Not only did the party stand at the sidelines watching the Houthi expansion, but at times even assisted them, as it mediated between the Houthis and some local tribes.

Islah’s mediation in Yarim district in the Ibb governorate is a clear example. The mediation served the Houthis' interests after they found themselves fighting on multiple fronts in the governorate.

     Islah was established after unity between the North and South in 1990 and the announcement of political plurality.

Like most regime-aligned political forces in Yemen, Islah benefitted from its proximity to the regime and lost ground when it drifted away from the regime. Islah’s presence in Yemen was the result of the crisis between the North and South of Yemen during the 1980s.

The party supported the future president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the north, "fighting the dangers of communism". The Brotherhood were able to gain a strong presence in the educational, security and military institutions of the state, and was represented in the sole political party in the north, the General People's Congress.

Islah was established after the unity between the north and south in 1990, and the announcement of political plurality. According to the admission of Sheikh Abdullah ibn Husayn al-Ahmar, the prominent politician and tribal leader, the party was established through an agreement with Saleh to increase opposition to the Socialist party, with which Saleh himself was allied as part of the unity deal.

Islah played an essential role in defeating the Socialist party in the 1994 war. However, since the Brotherhood become an independent entity and with the absence of the leftist threat, Saleh began reducing the its influence and its ability to monopolise power. In the 1997 parliamentary elections Saleh attempted to dominate parliament to form a government on his own.

However, it is noteworthy that while public relations between Saleh and Islah were strained, Islah's leadership continued to have a close relationship with the Saleh administration due to shared economic interests and tribal connections.

The relationship between Islah’s leadership and Saleh only deteriorated as a result of talk of the succession of Saleh’s son to the presidency in 2001, enraging the powerful military leader Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Saleh’s tribal allies in Islah like Sheikh Abdullah ibn Husayn al-Ahmar, whose son Hamid al-Ahmar led an anti-Saleh campaign in the 2006 presidential elections.

A failure to confront Saleh

It is noteworthy that Islah did not confront Saleh over his corruption or the worsening economic conditions in the country, as the party did not take part in the popular protests over increases in prices in 1992, 1997 and 2003. Rather, Islah opposed Saleh due to his succession plan, which unsettled the centres of power close to the regime. It seems the party organised its priorities based on the interests of it leadership rather than the interests of its activists, who are closer to the Yemeni people.

Unlike other Brotherhood branches that are usually insular, Islah’s activists enjoy an open relationship with various segments of the Yemeni population because of the tribal and conservative nature of society, which tends to support the conservatism of religious parties. Furthermore, Yemen's Brotherhood has not faced any persecution, which could have pushed the party towards insularity.

However, Islah failed to use its public presence to engage popular movements in Yemen. Instead, the party attempted to dominate these movements. This was apparent in the 2011 revolution, when the party took control of Change Square where protests were being held, administering the security in the square and even setting up a "prison" in which their opponents were held.

     Islah has failed to utilize its public presence to engage popular movements in Yemen.

Such actions only pushed other political forces away from Islah, as they saw that instead of using the popular movement to topple the regime, Islah was using the protests to pressure the regime to the benefit of traditional centres of power, such as the al-Ahmar family. Islah’s manoeuvres were designed to topple Saleh and his family, and not his entire political regime, of which Islah was a component.

After the revolution the party continued to look to power instead of the population as a source of authority, ignoring the discontent of the masses regarding the party’s clear bias towards the interests of traditional centres of power. For example, Islah called for a restoration of state authority in Sadah governorate (controlled by Houthi militias) but ignored the Ahmar militias active in certain parts of Sanaa. The party also talked about the need to restructure and unify the army. However it fears for its influence within the army and the position of its ally Ali Moshen al-Ahmar.

A failure to fight corruption

Islah’s popular image was damaged when it promised to fight corruption, and then did nothing. It has not taken any real action with regard to transitional justice either.

These issues have arisen largely because of the non-democratic mechanisms on which the party is based, as the leadership has not changed since the party’s establishment in 1990. Furthermore, there is no communication between the party’s leadership and its activists, who have been trained to obey their party leaders.

Therefore, the rise of Houthis is a natural result of the internal crisis of Islah in a fast paced environment of popular mobilisation. Islah has not been open to its own activists, let alone other political forces and segments of society. It has continued to operate in a traditional manner that gives little credence to the popular movement’s ability to dictate the balance of power.

In the current struggle for power, the Houthis have managed to use Islah’s failures to their advantage and allied themselves with Islah’s opponents, chiefly the former president Saleh. The Houthis were also assisted by the changing regional balance of power and in addition to this, they are a young and promising movement facing a movement with an aging leadership and backward outlook.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.