Yemen and the Boiling Frog Syndrome
The situation in Yemen, since the Houthis' takeover of Sana'a on September 21st, is a perfect example of the boiling frog syndrome. This syndrome stipulates that if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat the water, the frog will not feel the danger and will be boiled to death. When applied to people it refers to those who do not perceive the creeping danger and will not react to it until it is too late.
In Yemen, the Houthis have been devouring the authority of the state one institution and one measure at a time. It is a gradual coup and the international and regional reaction has been mute.
In the meantime, the government and the other political parties in Yemen are deluding themselves into writing a constitution and adhering to an agreement called the Partnership and Peace Agreement, reached in September, for ending the political crisis in the country and signed by almost everyone including the Houthis.
But the Houthis are marching to a different drummer.
The kidnapping of Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, the chief of staff of Yemeni President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi and head of the national dialogue process, is the latest move on the part of the Houthis to undermine the government and stop the political process in the country. But their attack on the institutions of the state has been escalating and becoming bolder by the day.
The Houthis, in alleged alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, are the real rulers in Yemen. They literally and figuratively have the state and Mr Hadi under siege. They have veto power on all government decisions, they appointed one of their "popular committees" in every ministry and institution, and they oversee all the work of the government cancelling government decisions and imposing their own appointments and decisions on the country including changing governors, imams of mosques and even official holidays for schools.
Those who oppose their control are attacked as foreign agents and corrupt. They seized the government control media, mainly the news agency and TV and newspapers, and forced those who oppose their policies out. Their confrontation with the minister of information is one example but the most astonishing one is when the Yemeni media reported that the government news agency Saba refused to publish the government statement that described the kidnapping of the president's adviser as a "criminal act".
This is happening while the Houthis reject the draft of the new constitution and refuse to hand in weapons they confiscated from the army when they took over.
Emboldened by their military successes and with support of their ally Iran, the Houthis are destroying the Yemeni state as a Yemeni official decried recently.
The Yemeni and Arab media spoke about arms shipments from Iran to the Houthis but the most important role Iran is playing is through its influence over the political process.
Aaharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic-language newspaper published in London, reported that the Houthis released a prominent intelligence official through Omani mediation. Mohamad al-Mirani, the son of Yahya al-Mirani, the intelligence official, said the Omanis contacted the Iranian intelligence to conclude the release.
Former prime minister Abdel Karim al-Ariani, an adviser to Mr Hadi, gave the signing of the Peace and Partnership Agreement as an example of Iran's influence. He said the government negotiated the agreement in Sana'a with the Houthis and the answer did not come from Saada, the headquarters of the Houthis, it came from Tehran via Oman, the mediator.
Sana'a looks today like Damascus or Beirut or Baghdad where the heavy weight of Iran's hand is leading to political gridlock and paralysis and threatening regional stability.
But the most important impact of the Houthis takeover is over the war on terrorism and the unity of Yemen.
The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris propelled to the forefront the use of Yemen by al-Qaeda and extremists as a breeding ground and a training camp for their operations. Since the Houthis' rise to power in September there has been a spike in al-Qaeda's attacks and in its ability to recruit Yemenis and to appeal to those Yemenis who are offended by the Houthis takeover, and by Iran’s role, Yemeni officials said.
The neighbours of Yemen are also concerned about this new-found strength of al-Qaeda. Also, after the Paris attacks, the United States and its European allies are more concerned about Yemen's instability and they are looking into the best way to limit the capacity of the terror organization to inflict harm on the West.
But experts point out that the fight against al-Qaeda and extremism in Yemen cannot be prosecuted with drones and military operations alone. The best way to weaken al-Qaeda and uproot extremism is through strengthening the Yemeni state and prevent the government's collapse. This can be done only through curtailing the power of the Houthis and putting an end to their systematic destruction of the state and their threat to its long-term stability.
The actions of the Houthis are also giving fuel to the southerners' case for independence. The Yemeni south is looking with apprehension at the gradual collapse of the state in the north. They say the unity experiment has failed and the south needs to reclaim its state that it had lost in the 1990 unity with the northern state.
The collapse of Yemen through a civil war and division is a source of great concern in Washington and the West because they see this as strengthening al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ending Yemeni government support for the US-led war on terror.
But what the West is being slow to recognize is that the Houthis gradualism is coming to head in Sana'a with all the powers of the state and pushing Yemen to the edge and if nothing is done to stop their march it will be too late to save Yemen as it was too late for the complacent frog.
Amal Mudallali is a Washington-based international affairs adviser.