Who are the Houthis and what do they want?
Alex PotterApril 06, 2015
Yemen is in crisis. Houthi rebels have taken Sana’a and are now advancing south on Aden. A Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly targeted rebel positions with air strikes in an escalation of the violence. The outcome is uncertain. But who are the Houthis and what do they want? In 2014, we sent Esquire’s (female American) reporter to spend time with them. Here’s what we learned…
(From the Esquire Archive: 2014)
The northbound two-lane highway from Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, to Sa’ada, the main city in the province of the same name, begins smoothly enough. It is paved, like most other major routes leading out of the nation’s capital. But an hour into the journey, near the town of Rayd’ah, the road begins to break down. Giant potholes litter the few concrete sections and at one point it splits in two to make way for a petrol station placed inconveniently in the middle, rather than to one side, of its path. The condition of the highway is a testament to both the lack of development outside Sana’a, and the disdain that the government holds for those who live five hundred kilometres to the north.
The difficult six-hour journey keeps Sa’ada and the leadership of the Houthis — a growing force in Yemeni politics — where the government wants them: far from the capital, Yemen’s seat of power. And with battles intensifying in Sa’ada, where at least 210 people have been killed since violence erupted last October, there seems little chance of reconciliation between the two cities any time soon
Rise of the Houthis
Yemen is divided in any number of ways: tribe versus tribe, north versus south, as well as splits between different strands of Islam, and the lines within these groupings are not always clear-cut. Yemeni Zaydis live almost exclusively in the northern provinces of Yemen, and most residents of Sa’ada are followers of the Zaydi ideology. Zaydis have always been a minority group in Yemen, but they lived in harmony with other groups and ruled the country on and off for around a thousand years. This Imamate finally ended following war in 1962. But even as the Zaydis’ influence seemed to be in terminal decline, a rebirth was underway. Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was a Zaydi religious leader and politician who believed in the preservation of his group’s beliefs. In 1986, he founded Ittihad al Shabab, the “Union of the Youth”, to educate and mentor Zaydi youth, which was transformed into the pro-Zaydi al-Haqq party following unification in 1990. After winning a parliamentary seat in the country’s first post-union elections in 1993, al-Houthi continued to push for Zaydi representation through yet another organisation, Shabab al Mu’mineen (“Believing Youth”).
Al-Houthi had served as imam of a religious school where the Houthi ideology was born, but what began as a social movement steadily morphed into a military, anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist organisation. It was deeply critical of the government, still overseen by the Sunni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2002, al-Houthi recited what came to be known as al Sarkha in Sana’a’s Grand Mosque: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” It has since been repeated as a rallying cry at most gatherings.
In 2004, the government attempted to arrest al-Houthi, claiming he was trying to reinstate the former Imamate. The attempt sparked the first in a series of battles that would rage on and off for the next six years. When al-Houthi was killed early on in the fighting, in 2004, his brother, Abdul-Malik, took over as the movement’s spiritual and political leader. In the wake of al-Houthi’s death, supporters of Shabab al Mu’mineen took on the name “Houthis”, a name that persists to this day, even though the group’s official title is now Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”).
Five more rounds of war followed the 2004 fighting. In 2009, Saudi Arabia also joined in the fighting when the conflict spilled into the Saudi province of Jizan. Houthi leaders also claim that the American military launched air raids in 2009, though the Yemeni and US governments deny any Western involvement. Further complicating the situation, rival tribes loyal to the powerful Al Ahmar family joined the government campaign, all of whom were led by Ali Mohsen al Ahmar. The opposing political motivations of the Houthi and Ahmar tribal leaders means that there is conflict within the north as well as between the north and the centre of power in Sana’a. Much of Sa’ada was completely destroyed during the fighting, and thousands of civilians were displaced. The lack of reconstruction aid from the government added insult to injury.
The resignation of President Ali Abdallah Saleh in 2011 following the Arab Spring protests benefitted the Houthis. They stayed long after others had left Change Square, as a visible demonstration of their frustration at what they viewed as an incomplete revolution — one that was interrupted by international actors in the shape of a deal backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that led to Saleh’s exit.
The GCC deal led to the 2012 one-man election of Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi, Saleh’s former vice president. There is a widely held view that Hadi was forced upon the people, as the only candidate acceptable to Yemen’s political class and the GCC deal’s international backers. Many Yemenis see Hadi as a tool of America due to his compliance, if not enthusiastic participation, in American drone strikes in Yemen’s hinterlands — there have been an estimated eighty-one attacks over the past decade. American imperialism is a major issue for the Houthis, and for many Yemenis, who would not have hitherto considered themselves aligned with the group.
Despite their criticisms of the GCC deal, Houthi leaders were among the first to organise representatives for Yemen’s National Dialogue, the discussion group created to pave the way for post-revolution Yemen. This has contributed to their growth in virtually all the northern governorates and in Sana’a.
“Regarding the words ‘Death to America’, we mean American politics, not the American people,” says Hussein al Hamran
The Houthis have also held a number of mass gatherings since the revolution, which demonstrate their growing popularity. On January 24, 2013, thousands gathered in Dahiyan, Sa’ada, and Heziez, just outside Sana’a, to celebrate Mawlid al Nabi, the birth of the Prophet Mohammed [PBUH]. It was a sight to behold. Held on an open plain surrounded by barren hillsides — all of which had been painted with green and white slogans venerating the Prophet and God — thousands of men rolled in from the north, pushing through wooden security gates and taking their seats. Important guests were escorted to plastic chairs near the stage, while the majority of men sat on the dusty plain stretching back a half a mile from the stage. Women were welcomed at another entrance, able to drive right up to their own gate and section, before being handed flags, headbands, flowers and basil, and a quick spray of sweet-smelling rosewater. The programme featured a televised speech from Abdul Malik transmitted from Sa’ada. His image played on jumbo screens in front of the crowds, leading prayers, religious blessings, and his vision for Ansar Allah.
A similar event took place on January 13, 2014, but this time at the main sports stadium in Sana’a. On this occasion, men and women were completely segregated: men filled the open-air stadium and football field in the centre, guided by appointed Houthi safety officials wearing bright vests and matching hats; women poured into the adjacent indoor stadium, shepherded inside by security women distinguishable only by their purple sashes and matching hats. The indoor stadium held at least five thousand women — ten times as many attendees as the 2013 gathering.
Beliefs and Activities
Despite these peaceful rallies and participation in the post-Arab Spring political process, big question marks remain over what the Houthis want, and also whether or not they are a force for stability in Yemen. For example, there are many seeming contradictions to their words and deeds. The al Sarkha message of “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam” echoes throughout nearly every religious gathering or political rally and can even be heard being chanted by children in the streets. But despite the grating rhetoric, in conversation most Houthi supporters and leaders stress that their ire is directed toward the governments of America and Israel, and Yemen’s cooperation with those countries, rather than Americans or Jews as individuals. “Regarding the words ‘Death to America’, we mean American politics, not the American people,” says Hussein al Hamran, head of Foreign Relations for Ansar Allah.
Anecdotally, at least, this would seem to prove true. This Esquire correspondent — an American, female photo-journalist — was welcomed at every Houthi event she attended, and even into Houthi homes. From evening celebrations for the Prophet Mohammad’s [PBUH] birthday in Old Sana’a, to the stark administrative offices of the Houthis in Sa’ada, when my American nationality was mentioned, nearly every response was the same: “Welcome.”
Yemen has always been characterised by tribal feuds, but never by the sectarian bloodshed that scars the history of countries like Lebanon or Iraq
This is just one of the many incongruities about the movement. The Houthis have never been linked to terror movements, and have never directly attacked foreign actors. But they do have an organised armed wing and a history of war with the government, even as they insist that no one should be armed when the present difficulties are overcome. And while the Houthis have equal representation for women in the National Dialogue, as the talks’ rules demand, female participation in everyday life is limited. A visit to the north reveals only a fraction of women out and about, and they are more heavily veiled than in Sana’a. But then again, Yemen’s north is generally more conservative than the south, and Sa’ada borders the Wahhabi Saudi Arabia.
The two years since the revolution, however, have not been all gain for the Houthis. Their leaders are still at odds with Yemen’s central government, not only in the national dialogue, but on the streets as well. A number of political representatives have been assassinated, including Abdul Kareem Jadban, a Houthi member of parliament. On June 9, 2013, a protest calling for imprisoned Houthis to be released turned into a firefight with the National Security that left 10 protesters dead. A battle in mid-February killed 210 people, followed by another riot in early March. “The situation in the north is extremely dangerous and Yemen risks another round of fighting that will likely be more difficult to contain than the last,” April Alley, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in the UK tells Esquire. “Further violence in the north could significantly derail the implementation of dialogue outcomes by fracturing already weak political consensus and state authority.”
The conflict outside of Sana’a is even more severe. Though Sa’ada is a mostly Zaydi Shi’a area, the townsfolk of Dammaj in the Sa’ada governate are mostly followers of the Sunni-Salafi school of Dar al-Hadith. Founded 1979, Dar al-Hadith is regarded as the eminent school for Salafi learning, a school of thought native to Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis, and especially Zaydis, see this as an encroachment on their traditions. Dammaj has long been at odds with its Houthi neighbours as a result and this was exacerbated by the Siege of Dammaj, a bloody conflict that in 2011 that left at least 250 people dead.
Tension remained high throughout Yemen’s first post-Arab-Spring year, and on October 31 of 2013, another round of fighting commenced. After months of on-off fighting, both sides agreed a ceasefire in mid-January 2014, but the Red Cross evacuated over one hundred people from Dammaj, with an equal number confirmed dead.
The frequency of conflict between the Sunnis of Dammaj and Zaydi supporters of the Houthis elsewhere in the province is spurring the fear of a greater sectarian conflict. Yemen has always been characterised by tribal feuds, but never by the sectarian bloodshed that scars the history of countries like Lebanon or Iraq. One prominent supporter stated his fear: “The Salafis really wanted to escalate the fighting to become a sectarian battle, to attract many fighters in the name of jihad. Personally, I’m afraid it will become a total war, just like Syria.”
While battles in the north are often framed by outsiders as simply sectarian, the involvement of the Al Ahmar tribes gives a more complex dimension to the conflict. Once the fighting extends beyond Dammaj, the conflict is again the Houthi tribes versus al Ahmar tribes, and the battle moves from ideological to political. In the most recent development, Houthi forces overtook Sheikh al Ahmar’s house in Amran. The video of the Sheikh’s smouldering house was uploaded to YouTube, and in the background can be heard chanting “Bye, bye, ya Hassona,” a pejorative nickname for the tribal leader.
Ali al Bukhayti, a National Dialogue Member for the Houthis, has written a roadmap that addresses grievances from both sides. While the document created by al Bukhayti seems fair and equal, it will take more than a simple dialogue to stop the fighting.
The Future of the Houthis
Despite the periodic fighting, Sa’ada has been relatively quiet since the end of the revolution. The city is plain and indistinct, like many other cities in Yemen. However, a closer glance reveals something very different. The city is cleaner. There are fewer traffic jams. The green and red lettered “Death to America” signs are everywhere, larger in number than Sana’a. The only music playing in the streets and sold from shops is Islamic nasheeds (vocal music that is sometimes accompanied by percussion) and religious ballads. Houthi leaders have poured investment into the city and surrounding area, rebuilding where the government has not. While many pundits in Yemen claim leaders and sheikhs are supported financially and with arms from Iran, Houthi hierarchy refutes this. Houthis have unequivocal power in Sa’ada, and many residents like it that way. It is now effectively a state within a state.
Yemen’s political direction remains uncertain. Politicians from the south continue to push for a re-separation of Yemen into north and south. Houthis maintain good representation, but many of their concerns are not being taken into consideration. The ruling General People’s Congress and the leading opposition groups continue to dominate the political process, while Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Islah, also holds sway as a legitimate political contender. All the while, al-Qaeda membership is growing in Yemen’s hinterland, and American drone strikes continue with the consent of the Yemeni government. Though elections were scheduled for February 2014 following the conclusion of the National Dialogue, instability pushed them back, with no alternative date chosen.
In the midst of all the confusion, the Houthis, once the outliers, are now one of the most stable and organised social and political movements in Yemen. The power vacuum created by Yemen’s uncertain transitional period has drawn more supporters to the Houthis. Many of the formerly powerful parties, now disorganised with an unclear vision, have fallen out of favour with the public, making the Houthis — under their newly branded Ansar Allah name — all the more attractive.
Yet the question of the Houthis’ future remains uncertain. Will they remain an organised political movement pushing for equal representation, cultural preservation and a civil state? Or will they take the power they have gained and run with it towards an even more uncertain and divided future?
“At this point, the Houthis are a movement with a political arm, but without a political party, and their refusal [to form one] is a major bone of contention with sceptics who fear that this is an indication of their unwillingness to peacefully participate in the democratic process,” says April Alley of the International Crisis Group. “The Houthis say they are not against forming a political party, but that they have the right to form one when they feel the political climate is right.”
At a time when religious and inter-state conflicts are increasingly common, that choice is critical for the future of Yemen.
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