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Is Yemen witnessing the rise of a new political giant?

August 22, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Often dismissed by local political observers as they carry the stigma of the former regime, the Houthis, a Zaidi group organised under the leadership of Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi with a tribal base in northern Sa’ada, have long shed their “rebel group” label. They have been reborn as a powerful and popular political movement.

If the Houthis, a formerly obscure band of tribal fighters, could be sneered at back in 2009 and shrugged off as wannabe Shia rebels by Yemen’s high and mighty, the 2011 uprising levelled the political field to such an extent that they have come out of the revolutionary storm like a shiny new penny.

Three years after the Arab Spring the Houthis have come to challenge the state in a manner which remains unprecedented. Their advances to the very edges of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a; their broad political appeal; and their ability to command mass popular support have made this faction one of Yemen’s new political heavyweights. Beyond the rise of what will probably be remembered as the country’s new political giant, though, exists a raw political power which could change not only the face of Yemen but redefine the region’s political and diplomatic fault-lines. It is important to understand that as the house of Al-Houthi rises, it is the coming of Shia political Islam which this impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula will witness.

To comprehend recent developments in Yemen better, one needs to go back in time, to when the Houthis were not yet enemies of the state; back when Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis did not yet lay claim to Yemen’s political landscape.

How the Houthis came to be

Back in 1994, the Houthis did not actually exist. Since the state had not yet chosen to target Yemen’s northern Zaidi population, no tribal leader or cleric felt the need to assert their right to an existence. Yemen’s northern alliance as one might call it was to be upset by South Yemen’s bid for independence and former President Saleh’ subsequent need for military backup.

While until 1994, Shaikh Hussein Badr Eddin Al-Houthi, the founder of the Houthis, a then-member of parliament for Al-Haqq Islamic Party, enjoyed a rather privileged relationship with Saleh; the latter’s need to broker an alliance with Riyadh to safeguard his presidency against South Yemen’s independence claims drove a wedge through this relationship which would echo through the following decades. Fearful of the Zaidis’ political ambition and a potential alliance with Shia Iran, Riyadh encouraged Saleh to isolate men like Al-Houthi politically and tarnish them in exchange for unlimited political and military backup. The deal also included the introduction to Yemen of Saudi Arabia’s religious doctrine of Wahhabism. To preserve Yemen’s unity Saleh sold out the highlands to Saudi Arabia.

As ultra-orthodox Sunnis began to expand their zones of influence in northern Yemen, Shaikh Al-Houthi rose in protest, determined to reclaim what he felt was Yemen’s religious heritage and identity; the rest is history.

Fast forward two decades and a revolution, and the Houthis have successfully built a mountain on the ashes of the former regime. With Yemen’s two powerhouses of the General People’s Congress and Al-Islah standing on quicksand, the Houthis have gained exponentially in strength and numbers, feeding from their adversaries’ shortfalls and revelling in the ever-expanding power vacuum left by President Saleh’s departure.

A new alliance

When Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi found himself propelled to the presidency in 2012, he realised quickly that for his mandate to be meaningful and lasting he would have to find a way to counter-act the Islamists’ influence within his government. The old power-play which Saleh set in place had all but crumbled and Al-Islah was getting ready to claim complete control over the state’s institutions, including the military.

Caught in between Al-Harak’ secessionist claims in the south, the threat of Al Qaeda and the overbearing weight of Al-Islah, President Hadi found an unlikely, yet very potent ally in the Houthis. Even though this is seldom covered by the media, the Houthis enabled Hadi to assert his presidency over the republic by eliminating and eroding those very powers the president could not openly oppose, let alone attack. A powerful proxy, the Houthis have done what President Hadi could not do, and would certainly not admit to: they declared war on Yemen’s Islamists.

Let us remember that just as the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt in 2012, Yemen’s Islamists hoped the ouster of President Saleh would allow them to rule unchallenged over the republic. But the Houthis were waiting. Following more than a decade of oppression at the hands of Yemen’ Salafis and Wahhabis, the Houthis vowed to reclaim the highlands and defeat Sunni radicals. Al-Islah counts within its ranks controversial figures such as Shaikh Abdel-Mageed Al-Zindani, a cleric who has figured on America’s most wanted terror list since 2004. It has benefited since 1994 from the protection of Saudi Arabia after the kingdom chose to use the faction as a counter-weight to Saleh. However, the rising threat of Al-Qaeda forced Riyadh to reassess its policy and renege on its former protégés.

With Saudi Arabia on board, Hadi began to cleanse the impoverished nation of its Islamists.

Walking with the Houthis

The march of the Houthis began in late October 2013 in Dammaj, a city located in the northern province of Sa’ada. Dammaj became ground zero for what would grow into the War of the Houthis.

Intent on curtailing the Islamists’ hegemonic ambitions in northern Yemen, the Houthis decided to act instead of the state, having understood that politics and military allegiances had paralysed the armed forces to the extent where generals served not their country but rather tribal leaders and political factions. If former President Saleh shaped the army to remain loyal to his command by nominating trusted aides and family members to key strategic position during his 30 years in power, so did Al-Islah.

It is crucial to understand that whenever the Houthis have battled the military, it is not the state they fought, but rather Islahi commanders, which is why Hadi chose to remain a silent witness.

Looking back, the Houthis were quite clearly allowed to advance against Al-Islah. If this were not so, why would President Hadi have tolerated Houthi militants setting up camp on the very edge of his capital, in a province, Amran, which used to be under the control of Al-Islah’s most prominent tribal family, Al-Ahmar? The loss of Amran has meant that Al-Islah’s military man, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, formerly the country’s most powerful military man, has had his legs cut away from under him. In only a few weeks the Houthis succeeded where Hadi had failed, and they dismantled Al-Islah’s military network.

While from Hadi’s perspective the Houthis have proven to be useful allies, especially since they allowed him to retain political deniability, Yemen’s president now fears that the group he unleashed could soon develop ambitions of its own. An astute politician and very much his father’ son, Abdel-Malek Al-Houthi remembers the taste of betrayal too well not to want to assert his new-found power in a manner which will undoubtedly clash with President Hadi’s interests.

But as Yemen’s new players are testing their political reach and defining power dynamics, there remains an opportunity to mend some of the political and ideological fault-lines which have plagued the region since 1979. Yemen’s Zaidis could, for example, open up new avenues between Iran and Saudi Arabia, acting a catalyst, if not for reconciliation, then cohabitation. Yemen appears, indeed, to be witnessing the rise of a new political giant.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.