Muslim Brotherhood Involvement Complicates Yemen Conflict

On Saturday, the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis kidnapped up to 140 members of Yemen’s Congregation for Reform Party (al-Islah), the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Yemen. Among those captured were Mohammed Qahtan and Hassan al-Yaeri, two leading figures in the party, and other top leaders.

The al-Islah members were targeted after issuing a statement declaring support for Operation Decisive Storm, an airstrike campaign conducted by a Saudi Arabian-led Sunni state coalition against the Houthis and forces loyal to former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. The latter are considered allies of the Houthi rebels.

The Muslim Brotherhood party criticized the Houthis’ recent actions in Yemen, citing their “hard-headed attitudes, their rejection of national dialogue and their use of force to impose their vision on the Yemeni people and political stakeholders.” Al-Islah also articulated its support for recently ousted Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who the United States and Saudis consider Yemen’s legitimate leader and the Houthis removed from power.

About 100 al-Islah members were still detained on Sunday as Houthi gunmen went into several department buildings, party charities, and private homes looking for more al-Islah personnel. The party warned the Houthis to not harm any of those who were kidnapped.

Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi Political Office, denied that the al-Islah members were arrested for their party’s beliefs or favorable stance on the airstrikes; he asserted the reason is that the group does not have Yemen’s best interests in mind. The Houthi official described how the al-Islah leaders were arrested because “we [the Houthis] have confirmed information that the coalition countries requested that Islah participate directly in the ongoing battles in Yemen.”

While the Muslim Brotherhood is uniformly Sunni, and thus more likely to oppose Houthi/Iranian expansion, al-Islah has very practical reasons for supporting Hadi and the coalition. Primarily, the party was allied with Hadi in his recently ousted government, so the Muslim Brothers naturally want to maintain their position of influence.

Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire to remain in power has manifested in somewhat of a split between al-Islah and the Global Muslim Brotherhood (GMB), its parent organization. GMB is apprehensive about Operation Decisive Storm because of Egypt’s leading role in the offensive. Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken power, he has made it a priority to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from his country. GMB is worried it might be kicked out of Yemen with a coalition victory, but al-Islah needs Hadi to have power.

Another conflict of interest involves Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot in Gaza, to whom Iran has provided money and arms for years. On Saturday, however, Hamas came out in cautious support of Hadi and therefore the coalition. This action comes as Hamas and Iran were mending ties after severe differences over the Syrian civil war. Beyond its GMB identity, Hamas was likely thinking about the millions of dollars promised to it by the Gulf States to rebuild Gaza.

Even the American Muslim Brotherhood is involved in the Yemen conflict – in a different capacity – with its front group, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), also under GMB. CAIR has launched a public campaign for the United States government to get U.S. citizens currently in Yemen out of the country. The movement has thus far gained little traction both in the government and media, raising questions of motivation and legitimacy.

Al-Islah’s presence in the current Yemeni civil war adds another entity to an already chaotic situation. The Muslim Brotherhood’s varying interests illustrate the environment’s complexity and how any “resolution” will only raise more questions. The fighting, however, does not appear close to stopping. The Houthis’ actions show that, while they are calling for negotiations to end the fighting, the rebels have little intention of stopping their march to control Yemen.