The Houthi Advance on Yemen’s Capital

Last month the international media awoke to the fact that while the world has been focused on the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq, Yemen’s capital had been seized by Shia rebels, known as the Houthis, who, they said, had become “Yemen’s new masters”. Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy to Yemen, said: “Yemen will now be seen as linked to other situations in the region, with regional and international involvement” (1).

However, few outlets have explored how the Houthis came to be important political stakeholders after a new government was formed in 2012 in accordance with a transition agreement sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah, Partisans of God) have been at the forefront of popular criticism of the agreement, and its outcome, and they claim that the revolution that began in 2011 must continue. This explains why, in the early days of their takeover of the capital Sanaa, few  of the city’s residents — even while wondering about the Houthis’ ultimate goals and disapproving of their occupation of government buildings — opposed them.

The Houthis’ astonishing advance can best be understood against the backdrop of the previous regime’s policies, the power constellations generated by the transition agreement, elite conflict and growing sectarian faultlines.

After Yemen became the third country to be engulfed by anti-regime protests in 2011, its long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Salih, accepted a deal guaranteeing him immunity from prosecution and enabling him to remain leader of the party he had founded, the General People’s Congress (GPC). He thus chose a “third way”: he neither met the fate of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan leaders, nor did he decide to fight to the bitter end, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Salih’s resignation paved the way to a power-sharing agreement between the GPC and the parliamentary opposition dominated by the Sunni Islamist Islah Party, sanctioned by the GCC countries and the United Nations.

Salih’s successor, President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, who has been in power since February 2012, has announced a plan for a federal system of government. A constitution-drafting committee is to present its first draft later in the year. A National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a remarkable exercise in democratic deliberation involving all sectors of Yemeni society, ended on 21 January 2014.

The Houthis emerged from the Zaydi-Shia revival movement that took root in the northern governorate of Saadah in the 1980s (2). The movement’s leader, the late Husayn al-Houthi, elected member of parliament in 1993 and killed by government forces in 2004, took issue with what he conceived as the discrimination against Zaydis and the marginalisation of Saadah province. Since Salih’s ascent to the republican leadership in 1978, a neo-Salafist movement has grown in confidence. This is seen by the Zaydi elites as a threat to their status and the doctrine they represent (Salafists consider the Shia to be non-believers.) The Dar al-Hadith of Dammaj, a Salafist teaching centre outside Saadah city, became one of Yemen’s epicentres of anti-Shia agitation and, prior to its closure by the government in 2014, a focus of global jihadism.

In 2003, leaders of the Zaydi revival movement organised protests against the US invasion of Iraq and against the Yemeni government, which was accused of cooperation with the US (particularly after 9/11) and of corruption and injustice. The Yemeni government, which had offered President George W Bush its full co-operation in the “war on terror”, interpreted the protests as incitement against the US, and declared military operations against the followers of Husayn al-Houthi as part of that war — a pretext for the elimination of a new charismatic leadership in the northern region. Between 2004 and 2010, Saadah and some of the adjacent provinces were engulfed in intermittent warfare. Aiding the Yemeni army, in 2009-10, Saudi Arabia pursued what it saw as a “jihad” against the Houthis — the first in the history of the third Saudi state.

Following the end of hostilities in 2010, the parties involved failed to draw up an adequate peace agreement covering reconciliation, confidence building measures and reconstruction, thereby leaving the door open for further conflict. Several of those issues were addressed at the National Dialogue Conference, which provided a forum forthe Houthis to express their grievances. The government offered an apology for the war, offered to reconstruct the war-torn region, and granted the Zaydis freedom of belief. So the politics of amnesia that had emerged after the end of civil war in Lebanon in 1990 was avoided, even though political assassinations and armed conflict in the southern and northern regions undermined realistic prospects for the early implementation of the NDC’s resolutions. Among those murdered in the last days of the conference was Dr. Ahmad Sharaf al-Din, Dean of the faculty of law at Sanaa University. Representing the Houthis, he advocated their ideas of a federal civic state built on the German model. They also argue in favour of a separation of state and religion.

The Houthis are dismayed by the lack of progress in implementing the points agreed at the NDC. They also rejectthe “government by consensus” that has been the outcome of the transition accord. Like the youth movement, which began anti-regime protests in 2011, they hold that it derives its legitimacy above all from regional powers rather than the Yemeni electorate.

After they entered Sanaa in August 2014, they held sit-ins and demonstrations that provided a challenge from the extra-parliamentary opposition to the government; this threw light on the shortcomings of the transition agreement, which, guaranteeing the survival of the political elites, has failed to establish an inclusive government. No transitional justice system has been put in place. None of the politicians and military accused of human rights violations have yet been brought to justice, nor have any of those people who plundered public and private wealth in the south, during the war of 1994 between northern and southern forces, been held accountable.

Since the transition accord stipulates that only members of established political parties are to be included in the new government, representatives of groups such as the Houthis or the Southern Movement, which has demanded reparations after the war of 1994, were not given either cabinet posts or governorships. The Houthis’ role as a well-armed militia is resented. And in 2011 an opportunity was missed to integrate them into the political process beyond their participation at the NDC, which would have given them a stake in the new government.

Tensions also arose because the Islah Party, which is opposed to the Houthis, gained a large number of portfolios and governorships, especially in the northern region. Resentment of those appointments by the Houthis added momentum to the fighting in governorates south of Saadah province in 2013-14 (the province was taken over by the Houthis in 2011).

During a period hailed by Yemeni and UN officials as an exemplary peaceful transition to a new government, Yemenis came to witness a present embattled with the past. Salih’s divide and rule strategy, which according to political scientist Lisa Wedeen had led to manageable levels of disarray and was (paradoxically) conducive to his maintenance of power for three decades, has come to haunt the new government (3). Salih, a self-proclaimed Zaydi, promoted and used radical Sunni groups opportunistically, hoping they would undermine the Zaydi elites and the Socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, which came to power after the end of British rule in the South in 1967).

Along with fighters of the tribal Hashid confederation, Islamist paramilitaries helped Salih’s army to defeat the army of the former PDRY in 1994, four years after the ill-conceived unification of the two Yemens. Fighters belonging to those two groups also joined the army during the war in Saadah and once again fought against the Houthis in the most recent conflict in 2013-14, giving it a sectarian tenor. In the latest battles they were joined by Ansar al-Sharia fighters from southern provinces which have become central foci of AQAP operations and the army’s and the United States’ counter-offensive.

The conflict was linked to cycles of revenge and sectarian tensions which have been exacerbated by a paralysed state that is unravelling before its citizens’ eyes. Someleaders of the Hashid confederation, the al-Ahmars, are linked with the Islah Party and have been the Houthis’ rivals in the northern region. In the battles in Amran province, north of Sanaa, which were tied to national power struggles, they were defeated by the Houthis who were aided by Hashid leaders opposed to the unpopular al-Ahmars.

Ever since the Saadah governorate was ravaged by war, the Houthis’ survival and expansion (both territorially and ideologically) have been due partly to their ability to capitalize on rivalries within the political elite. During the later phase of the war, Salih’s priority was to outmanoeuvre and expose the poor military performance of his rival Major-General Ali Muhsin — then commander of the First Armoured Division — rather than to defeat the militarily inferior Houthis. Likewise, after 2011, the strained relations between Salih, General Ali Muhsin and the al-Ahmars, who fought street battles with the republican guards in 2011, have favoured the Houthis.

During the latest conflict between the al-Ahmars and the Houthis, Salih offered logistical support to the latter and reassured loyalists among Hashid that taking sides against the al-Ahmars was tenable. Success on the battlefield and local alliances emboldened the Houthis and led them to challenge the government. In August 2014, followers of Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the movement’s young leader since 2006, set up vast encampments in and around the capital. They demanded that a new government based on “a national partnership” and “consensus” be established; that violations of what had been agreed upon in the NDC be identified; that the decision to cut fuel subsidies be withdrawn.

Against the background of the wars fought by the Houthis since 2004 and the distribution of power in the new government, it comes as no surprise that when they entered Sanaa, their first targets were Al-Iman University (a Salafist-inspired college run by the controversial Islahi leader Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and illegally built on an endowment belonging to the Houthi family), a military complex under the command of General Ali Muhsin, and the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family and other leaders of Islah.

Reminiscent of the pictures of the luxurious homes of the Qaddafi family in 2011, Yemenis are now presented with images of the villas of Islah leaders on a television channel owned by the Houthis. Sanaa residents tell tales of beautifully lush gardens with gazelles and swimming pools, large diwans and automatic generators — aware of the fact that half of Yemen’s population lives under the poverty line. The underlying moral discourse serves to reinforce the Houthis’ claim that the “real” revolution is only now occurring. By the time Houthi militias occupied central government buildings in Sanaa, the losers appeared to be Islah and the GCC countries. Those countries sponsored the transition agreement because they saw it as a way to demobilize the very social and political forces who had in 2011 demanded wide reaching structural changes which might have collided with their interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies.

After the situation deteriorated inside the capital, on 21 September 2014 a Peace and National Partnership Agreement was brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar and signed by President Hadi, delegates of Ansar Allah and leaders of major political parties. The document, which is based on the final guidelines of the National Dialogue Conference, calls for an immediate ceasefire, an end to all forms of violence and the formation of a non-partisan ‘government of experts’ which will work to enhance government transparency and implement economic reforms in addition to ongoing military and security reforms.

The president has appointed a political advisor affiliated with the Houthis and a new prime minister, Khalid Bahah, who has served as Yemen’s ambassador to the UN and minister of oil and higher education. The Houthi movement has been able to cash in on the unpopularity of a government widely seen as corrupt and ineffectual. The government has made efforts to introduce political reforms but in the face of a collapsing economy, corruption, a resurgent AQAP and armed conflict in several parts of the country, has been unable to deliver on its promises. For this reason alone it has not been difficult to challenge its political legitimacy. The Houthis have succeeded in driving some much resented members of the old elite out of the country, among them General Ali Muhsin and Hamid al-Ahmar, a wealthy businessman who is closely affiliated with Islah. (Within the framework of the transition agreement politicians against whom popular grievances had been brought could not be obliged to leave the country temporarily.)

By October 2014, the people of Sanaa were grateful for an improved supply of electricity and for security provided jointly by the police and the Houthis, but were less sure about the direction their revolution might take and fearful of renewed violence and a coup led by disaffected military. The Houthis have not yet proved themselves in government, and it is unclear whether they will reach a political settlement with the government in the near future. Their methods of attempting to influence decision-making processes are increasingly resented, and they may have overreached themselves by expanding into ever more provinces in the western and southern parts of the country. To avoid getting caught up in endless cycles of revenge, they will need to seek reconciliation with their enemies and endorse a pluralistic society. They have reached a crossroads, if not an impasse.

Gabriele vom Bruck lectures in the Anthropology of the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Berlin Graduate School of Muslim Cultures and Societies. She is the author of Islam, mMemory and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005.


(1) Hamza Hendawi, “Shiite rebels are Yemen’s new masters”, Associated Press, 5 October 2014.

(2) The Zaydis are a moderate branch of the Shia whose jurisprudence is closer to Sunni Islam than to the “Twelver” Shia movement.

(3) L. Wedeen, Peripheral visions: Publics, power, and performances in Yemen, Chicago University Press 2008.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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