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The Houthis hold Yemen's Islamists hostage in Hasaba

August 27, 2014 at 10:50 am

As of Sunday evening any hopes of a political truce with the Houthis have been shattered. Returning from the northern province of Sa’ada where he met with Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi – the flamboyant leader of this formerly obscure northern Yemeni Zaidi faction – Abdulmalik Al-Mekhlafi, the spokesman of the presidential committee, confirmed that his delegation had failed to broker a viable compromise with the group.

Disappointed and visibly frustrated by Al-Houthi’s implacable determination to see his three-point plan implemented, Al-Mekhlafi lashed out at the Houthis, accusing its leadership of promoting war. “The Houthis seem intent on war and have rejected all proposals,” he told reporters in Sanaa.

While the Houthis have refused to call back their supporters on the off promise that President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi will dissolve the coalition government and discuss a potential review of the oil subsidies dossier; this political stand-off has more to do with Al-Islah than it has to do with state policies.

While politicians and journalists have remained focused on assigning blame for this new breakdown in communication, keen to point an angry finger at the Houthis’ leadership for refusing to reconcile their demands with state officials’ agenda, a development has largely gone amiss – the Houthis have de facto besieged Yemen’s Islamists by pinning down Al-Ahmar in Hasaba.

Following months of violent clashes and advances against Al-Islah’s tribal militias and its loyal military commanders in the Yemen Highlands, the Houthis have finally made it to the capital, forcing the formerly formidable Al-Islah faction against a brick wall.

Regardless of how one might feel about the Houthis and their agenda, it has become rather evident that their increase in power has grown parallel with Al-Islah’s loss of political, tribal and military momentum. With an irony and symmetry which history books will undoubtedly point to, the Houthis are holding Al-Islah captive in a fashion reminiscent to Gen. Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar’ siege against the late Sheikh Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi in September 2004.

Often dismissed, mislabelled, and at times denigrated, the Houthis have nevertheless managed to transition into Yemen’s mainstream politics by appealing to the masses and cultivating key friendships with other pariahs of Yemen’s mainstream politics, mainly Al-Harak – the Southern Separatist Movement. If the Houthis have failed to play the game of Yemen’s political giants, having understood that 2011 marked the end of tribal politics in favour of the people’s politics, they have won their place as the people’s champion.

It is the group’s ability to connect with the people that has allowed its leadership to rally hundreds of thousands of partisans to its cause. It is important to understand that all those who turned up in support of the Houthis over the past week in Sanaa are not all Houthi militants; most are regular Yemenis looking for a strong arm to promote their rights and interests. Of the sea of demonstrators which have vowed to stand with Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi come hell or high water, only a few thousands actually hail from northern Sa’ada.

The siege

Of all the places in the capital the Houthis could have chosen to demonstrate and plant their tents, it is rather interesting and actually most telling to see that they elected Hasaba as their encampment; right on the door step of Al-Ahmar, Yemen’s most prominent tribal family and head of Al-Islah Party – Sunni radical faction which acts as an umbrella for the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and tribal elements.

Rather than hold government offices hostage, as many media reports have claimed over the past week pointing to the proximity of the Interior Ministry and Electricity Ministry, it is actually Al-Ahmar’s stronghold of Hasaba which the Houthis have had in their line of vision. It was from Hasaba after all that in 2011 Al-Islah held back and later defeated former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It is Hasaba still which President Hadi has attempted to regain control of since 2012, each time failing to permanently dismantle Al-Ahmar’s fortifications and tribal-manned checkpoints. Over the past three years Hasaba has come to embody the core of Al-Islah’s power, its beating tribal heart.

Should Hasaba fall, Yemen’s Islamists would be no more.

It is this reality, this dynamic which the Houthis have really come to challenge in the capital; not the government and certainly not the republic.

Looking at how President Hadi has managed the situation so far, it is clear that while he has called on military reinforcements ahead of expected clashes, he has only ordered his generals to establish a safe perimeter around the capital. If the Houthis were such a threat why not intervene pre-emptively? Why would President Hadi allow such dangerous dissidents so close to his government if, on some level, the Houthis’ agenda did not align with his own? Could it not be that at this particular juncture both President Hadi and the Houthis happen to share a common goal – the neutralisation of Yemen’s Islamists?

With this in mind, recent developments and the subsequent failure to reach an agreement with the Houthis can be understood in a different light.

Would it not be more accurate to assume that it was Al-Ahmar’s refusal to loosen their grip on Yemen’s institutions which led to the recall of the presidential committee from Sa’ada? As often the case in the impoverished nation, we are witnessing political wrangling being played out on the tribal field.

Ever since late October 2013, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi’s military campaign has specifically targeted Islahi loyalists. From northern Dammaj to Amran on the outskirt of Sanaa, the Houthis have systematically challenged Al-Islah’s territories, eroding at its power network to better isolate its leadership; Al-Ahmar brothers.

As Sanaa braces itself for more violence, much of Yemen’s future rides on the Houthis’ ability to suffocate Islamists and cut off their power supplies.

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