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What is the Houthi Movement?
25 Sep 2014
As Yemen is rocked by the recent protests in the capital Sana'a by protesters and the militant group, the Houthis, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation looks at the group's origins, ideology and ambitions.
Context and Origins
The Houthi movement is dynamic, and has changed greatly in its goals and methodology over course of its existence. Yemeni Zaydi religious leader Hussein al-Houthi gave his family name (al-Houthi) to the movement, which is also called "Ansar Allah" (sometimes spelled as "Ansarullah"). Al-Houthi was a one-time member of the Zaydi political party Hizb al-Haqq, and was killed amid fighting with government forces in 2004. The movement began and has its stronghold in the northern Yemen governate Sa'dah, and it has developed into strong fighting force in Yemen over recent years.
The group has roots in a summer program, begun in 1990 to educate youths via video and cassette recordings, about Zaydism, a traditional Muslim sect they felt was not well understood by modern Yemeni youth. They went by the name "Shabab al-Mumanin" (The Believing Youth). There was a Zaydi imamate in Yemen for nearly a thousand years. It came to an end in 1962 in a war that involved Egypt allied with opponents of the imamate. The imamate was backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Under the Yemen Arab Republic and unified Yemen, that followed the dissolution of the imamate, returning mujahedeen from Afghanistan, who introduced salafi and Wahhabi teachings, expanded the religious landscape. Al-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform) is the largest political opposition party, and opposed to the Houthi movement, seeing it as the Hezbollah of Yemen. The party, established partly with the complicity of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a coalition between the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, the Hashid tribe and the jihadi-salafist branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hussein al-Houthi encouraged the militarisation of his followers in the face of continued persecution from the government and Sunni Islamist militias. The movement came into direct confrontation with former president Saleh's regime when al-Houthi rejected the Yemen government's support of the "war on terror". When al-Houthi was killed in 2004, his father (Badr al-Din al-Houthi) and brother (Abd Malik al-Houthi) took over the leadership of the movement. Over the next six years, five more wars with the Saleh regime occurred, transforming what had begun as a loosely organized youth activist movement to a much more hardened insurgent group. The Houthis gained sympathy from fellow victims of Saleh's policies and scorched earth approach to repressing dissention and security issues. The Houthi movement's resistance also resonates with many Yemenis disenfranchised with the present and former governments.
The current Houthi movement is difficult to define because they claim to represent such a broad spectrum of interests. While rooted in Shia Islam, the Zaydi sect under the imamate, received financial support to aid the royalist cause from Saudi Arabia during the 1960s civil war. Conversely, Saudi Arabia intervened in 2009 in the sixth war between Zaydi Houthis and the Saleh government; launching aerial attacks against the group after a Houthi incursion across the border into Saudi Arabia. There are also unsubstantiated claims that the Houthi movement receives funding from Iran. Despite this, Houthi power and support is home grown and their fight with the government is a domestic one to shape the future of Yemen.
The Houthi roots are based in Zaydism, a shia sect. Its leadership and many members are Zaydi adherents. A Zaydi Imamate ruled parts of Yemen in different forms for a thousand years. For much of that time, Yemen was also under the suzerainty of the Ottoman empire. The imamate fell in 1962. A core tenant of Zaydism is that only the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed (through his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali and their children) are the legitimate rulers of Muslims.
The group's critics accuse Houthis of aspiring to reinstitute the Imamate over Yemen. Its Shiite roots are a point of contention with Sunni/Salafi teachings in Yemen that mostly come from Saudi Arabia in the north.
Houthis and the Yemen Uprising
The Houthis were central players in Yemen's 2011 uprising and were invited to participate in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and Gulf Cooperation Council's Agreement that ended the uprising. This engagement confirmed the movement's place as power brokers in Yemen.
The Houthis were not however, represented in the transitional government consisting of Saleh's vice-president, Abd Rubbo Mansour Hadi, as head of state, the existing parliament –dominated by Saleh's General People's Congress party– and a cabinet split evenly between Saleh's party and opposition Islah party. The Houthis therefore regarded them as little different than the Saleh regime.
Recent Developments
The group continued their attacks against those they saw as aggressors against Sa'dah even after the transitional government took power in 2012. During 2013 and 2014, Houthi insurgents continued to fight in Sa'dah, creating facts on the ground and expelling those from the governate they claimed were affiliated or sympathetic to al-Qaeda.
Over the past year, Sunni militias, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and others allied with al-Islah, have clashed with Houthi insurgents in the north. Al-Islah probably stands to lose the most in the wake of a Houthi rise to power. The Houthis gained respect and support from many Yemenis for their contributions to the NDC and their fight against al-Islah-allied militants in the north. However the Houthis' capture of the city of Amran (just 50km from Sana'a) and the killing of the commander of the military base there has made some acquiescent supporters suspicious of Houthi commitment to the peaceful transition and reform process.
There is widespread Yemeni discontent with the transitional government, which has proven incompetent, paralysed by internal divisions, old rivalries and an almost complete lack of ability to address the country's many issues. Capitalizing on these sentiments, and seeking a more prominent role for itself in Yemen's future, the Houthis, supporters of the group and others acting in their name, used discontent over the 29 July removal of fuel subsidies to launch a loosely organised campaign of protests that spanned the political spectrum.
In August and September, Houthis began establishing armed camps that eventually encircled Sana'a. Simultaneously, protestors staged sit-ins and demonstrations. These turned violent on 18 September, culminating in Houthi fighters entering the city, taking over strategic buildings – such as the international airport – and setting up checkpoints around the city. A peace deal was announced on 20 September, though many doubt the Houthis will be content with the concessions they have gained. A senior official close to President Hadi stated of the Houthis, "they don't want a political solution, they want a state within a state, like Hezbollah".
Ambitions and Goals
There may be as many goals of the Houthi movement as there are Houthis. And differences almost certainly exist between the leadership based in Sa'dah and those protesting in Sana'a under the Houthi umbrella.
According to an 8 September International Crisis Group alert, the current round of protests "are part of a bargaining process through which the movement hopes to become dominant in the north and more powerful on the national level. Even as [Houthi] leaders make demands of the central government in Sana'a, their militias are fighting al-Islah-affiliated tribesmen and military units in Jawf governorate in what is widely viewed as an effort to create facts on the ground to force a renegotiation of the six-region federal structure proposed by the NDC".
Within the Houthi movement, there are liberal and conservative groups. At the moment, the more politically oriented members, seem to represent the more liberal tendencies. They are willing to work with other political parties and groups and to compromise. The insurgent groups who have been fighting in Sa'dah and Amran appear more conservative. There are worrying testimonies of violence against non-Houthi members and repression of freedoms in the areas coming under Houthi control.
There are doubts among Yemen watchers as to the ultimate goals of the Houthi. For their broad support base, they claim to want an inclusive government that can implement reforms and government policies. However, some believe they ultimately want more autonomy or even a semblance of self-rule in their northern Sa'dah region. Currently they exercise more control over that region that any other group, including the government in Sana'a. Their recent disruption of Sana'a also demonstrates their increasing military capability vis-a-vis other Yemeni armed groups, including the national military. There is a growing worry that given their current social popularity, political leverage and military momentum, Houthis will rely more on force and intimidation than dialogue and democracy.
Yemen Situation Report
A new Religion & Geopolitics Situation Report on Yemen, written by Thanos Petouris of SOAS and the British-Yemeni Society, looks in depth at the conflicts currently engulfing the country. The report explores the complex role religion plays within various local conflicts, particularly the increasing tendency for grievances with central government to be framed in religious and sectarian terms, since the Arab Spring toppled a 30-year old regime. The report also looks at the conditions that led to the rise of rebel and militant groups in the country including the Houthi movement and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It can be found here.
International Crisis Group
Human Rights Watch
Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs
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