Reuters Share Share Things to Know About the Houthis of Yemen
In less than a month, the Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital, forced the country’s president and his cabinet to resign and dissolved parliament. The latest crisis has left Yemen’s political system in tatters and heightened the prospects of more instability in a volatile country that has been an important U.S. partner in the fight against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
The Houthis are a militant group drawn from the Zaidi population in northwest Yemen. While the country is mostly Sunni, the Zaidis, who make up roughly one-third of the population, practice a form of Shiite Islam called Zaydism. The rebels, now a major political and military force, are widely believed to be supported by Shiite-dominated Iran and to be working with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was overthrown in 2012 during the Arab Spring. The group, created in the 1990s by Hussein Al Houthi, a religious and political figure, has been fighting the central government for several years. After Mr. Houthi was killed in a Yemeni army operation in 2004, the leadership passed to his father and then to his brother, Abdul Malik Al Houthi.
Since Yemen’s revolution ended in 2012, the Houthis have demanded a greater role in the government and in the drafting of a new constitution. They accuse the government of corruption and oppose polices they say are at odds with their minority group’s interests, including a proposed division of the country into six federal states. They say such a move would weaken their Zaidi sect’s political representation.
They also have chided the U.S.-backed national security forces for their inability to counter al Qaeda forces, demanding that the military step up its fight against the terrorist organization.
Yemen has been engulfed in a crisis since 2012, when Mr. Saleh was ousted following months of protests. The crisis escalated last month, when armed Houthi militants seized government buildings and the presidential palace in the capital, San’a. Western-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned on Jan. 22 to protest the seizure of the capital and his house arrest.
After failing to reach a pact with the country’s political factions on a new government, the rebels said last week that they would appoint an interim national assembly to govern the country, the poorest in the Arab world. Yemen is currently being run by a hastily formed security council that will at some point establish a five-member presidential council. This council is then supposed to put together a new transitional government. Meanwhile, pro- and anti-Houthi demonstrations have swelled in the streets of the capital and other major cities.
The Shiite rebel takeover and the latest developments are likely to throw the country deeper into turmoil and continue to stoke secessionist sentiments in the south. As they try to cement their hold on power in the majority-Sunni nation, the Shiite rebels are likely to face opposition and potentially violent resistance. They also risk a loss of foreign aid to the country, which is running out of money. The recent closures of the U.S. and other Western embassies in Yemen because of security concerns could leave the Houthis without sources of financial aid and technical assistance during a trying time for the economy. The biggest donor, Saudi Arabia, cut its aid to the country in December due to concerns over the increasing influence of the Houthis.
Also, much of Yemen’s energy resources, which provide the bulk of national revenue, are in the Marib region, which is dominated by Sunni tribes. The tribes shut down about half of the oil fields in two other provinces last month to protest the Houthis’ advance.
“We believe the situation is very dangerous. Yemen is on the brink of civil war.”
Jamal Benomar, the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen 5 Why does the U.S. care about what is happening? Share on Twitter
Yemen’s deepening political crisis could jeopardize U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the region. Before the takeover, the Yemeni army had cooperated with the U.S. on operations to fight AQAP, which is considered one of the most dangerous al Qaeda offshoots and claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris on Charlie Hebdo magazine last month. The Houthis’ rise to power has cast doubt on the future of this cooperation. Even though the Houthis are fierce enemies of AQAP, they also are hostile to the U.S. and oppose the U.S. military program there, which they see as an unacceptable violation of Yemeni sovereignty. Despite some early success by the U.S. campaign, AQAP remained resilient and even enjoyed resurgence across Yemen last year, as it took advantage of a weak central government and used the Houthis’ rise as a recruitment tool. The terrorist group is considered to be the al Qaeda arm that is most capable of launching global attacks, U.S. officials say.
The U.S. has opened indirect lines of communication with the Houthis, but a U.S. cooperation with the Houthis could further complicate its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the leading Sunni states in the Persian Gulf, who view the Houthis’s dominance as a major regional victory for Tehran.