“If a cat dies in Lebanon, the world knows about it. Here in Yemen, we are forgotten.”
– Zaidi scholar Sayyid Mourtada al-Muhatwari
The jambiya or ceremonial curved, double-edged dagger worn under the belt of Yemeni men after age 14 conveys both the status and clan of the person wearing it. It may be harmlessly drawn during traditional dances but only in rare and exceptional circumstances would it ever be used as a weapon against another. Sadly, this is essentially what is happening in the fratricidal war taking place in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest countries. It is a war that has gone largely unnoticed yet one that clearly exposes the political and sectarian fault lines emblematic of similar conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
The uprising in Saada, a governorate located in the mountainous highlands of northwest Yemen along the border with Saudi Arabia, began exactly four years ago. It was initially led by Zaidi cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi and his Shabab al-Momineen (Believing Youth) movement against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
To better understand this rebellion, a cursory knowledge of Zaidi and Yemeni history is helpful.
The Zaidiyyah school in Islam is considered an early offshoot of Shia Islam. Whereas the majority of Shiites believe that a finite line of 12 Imams succeeded the Prophet Muhammad, Zaidis assert that Zaid ibn Ali, after whom they are named, should have rightfully been recognized as the 5th Imam instead of his brother. More importantly, they contend the line of imams is ongoing and continues to this day. Any male who can trace their lineage back to the Prophet qualifies for the position (reports differ as to whether Hussein al-Houthi designated himself as imam). These Arab descendents of the Prophet are known as Hashimites.
North Yemen was ruled by these Hashimite Zaidis for more than 1,000 years until they were overthrown by an alliance of nationalist Sunni and Shia military officers in 1962 who then founded the Yemen Arab Republic. The Zaidis form about a quarter of the country’s population today.
Hussein al-Houthi was ultimately killed by the army in September 2004 and his brother, Abdul Malik, now heads the Mujahideen Group. Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh (a non-Hashimite Zaidi) accuses the brothers’ followers, collectively known as “Houthis,” of seeking to restore Hashimite Zaidi rule in the north, sedition, and “sharing intelligence with foreign powers” (an unsubtle reference to Iran).
The Houthis reject these allegations and maintain they are fighting against the institutionalized discrimination and disenfranchisement of the Zaidi community, the increasing promulgation of anti-Shia Salafi/Wahabi ideology in Yemen, and the government’s establishment of closer ties with the United States.
A Qatari-brokered ceasefire took place between the parties in June 2007 and a formal peace agreement was signed in February 2008. Mutual recriminations over failure to implement the accord and renewed fighting over the past several months, however, have rendered the pact meaningless.
In a June 7th Washington Post article, Ellen Knickmeyer reports that the Yemeni government is doing its utmost to both suppress and prevent coverage of the fighting in Saada. This has occurred by impeding independent observers from assessing the war and denying local and foreign journalists access to the area. Cell phone networks to the region have been cut and relief efforts hampered.
“To even speak of going to Saada is to get a death sentence” remarked Abdul Karim al-Khiwani, editor of the Zaidi weekly Al-Shura.
Al-Khiwani managed to escape the death penalty, but in a verdict decried by human rights groups as well as the U.S. State Department, he was found guilty of sedition and “forming an armed group.” On June 9th he was sentenced to six years in prison with hard labor. His real crime? Covering the Saada rebellion and publishing the photographs of destroyed villages.
As one might surmise, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Saada. Abdul Malik al-Houthi told the IRIN News Agency that food supplies were not reaching the north as the World Food Program struggles to feed the 77,000 internally displaced civilians (Knickmeyer reports 100,000). From these accounts and those of widespread destruction of homes, businesses and mosques, Saada is effectively under siege. The death toll in the war between the Yemeni government and the Zaidi rebels now numbers well into the thousands.
Indeed, the struggle of al-Houthi’s forces in north Yemen is not unlike that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers in Baghdad. All have demanded an end to the collusion between the ruling authority and the United States and/or Israel; endured or are presently enduring a humanitarian crisis; accused of being under Iranian influence, and feared by the leaders of the Sunni Arab states for using the ballot box to achieve political legitimacy.
The one distinguishing feature is what little attention the Saada Zaidis have received. Of the many hardships they continue to face, neglect of their plight should not be made one of them.
RANNIE AMIRI is an independent commentator on the Arab and Islamic worlds. He may be reached at: rbamiri (at) yahoo.com