26.09.2014 Author: Catherine Shakdam

Supporting the Houthis – Who stands behind Yemen’s new dissidents?

4564563Just as Yemen was set to turn the corner on its much publicized and let’s face it, rather challenging transition of power, this poorest nation of the Arabian Peninsula has been gripped by what can only be described as a second revolutionary wave. If 2011 saw the rise of radical Islamists in the coming into power of the Muslim Brotherhood, a faction which for decades has stood a political buffer to regimes across the Middle East, 2014 has signalled a dramatic change of tide for Yemen, one of the last bastions of radical Sunni political Islam. While other Arab Spring countries have too since 2011 rejected Islamists, as seen in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, eager to break away from old patterns and religious-political dogma to build democratic institutions more in line with popular wishes, using the army as a catalyst, Yemen saw instead the rise of the most unlikely power – the Houthis.

A formerly obscure Zaidi rebel faction based in the northern province of Sa’ada, the Houthis first came to be in 1994 when their founder, Sheikh Hussein Badreddin Al Houthi decided to form a tribal militia to oppose what he perceived as sectarian-based state oppression against Zaidi Muslims – a branch of Shia Islam –

Turning tables

The black sheep of Yemen’s political and tribal arena, the Houthis have suffered great defeats and many humiliations by the hands of Al Islah, Yemen’s very own Sunni radical faction …that is until recently. While politicians predicted that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure from power in 2012 would automatically benefit Al Islah, Yemen’ second most potent political and military force, frictions and overlapping crises created an ever-expanding political vacuum which directly played into the hands of the Houthis.

As Yemen’s deep state engaged in a power battle, with politicians seeking to assert their respective factions over others as to rise the winners of the Arab Spring, the people, who it is important to understand hold the key to state legitimacy, began to disengage, tired of politicians’ pettiness and their never-ending hunger for power, riches and privileges.

Looking back, it is likely such socio-political fracture which has enabled the Houthis and allowed the group’s call for change to become Yemen’s rallying revolutionary cry.

While Yemen media and government officials have been keen to downplay the rise of the Houthis by actively tapping into the sectarian narrative, thus acerbating negative sentiments toward the group in a desperate bid to move the focus away from the political shift the country is undergoing, it has become impossible to ignore Abdel-Malek Al Houthi’s rise in popularity.

“Those rebels” the press has been so accustomed to denigrate have become a potent popular force, a power which has, in the face of incredible odds, managed to erode at Al Islah’s powerhouse, cutting its military positions and forcing its politicians to retreat. In just over three years, the underdogs of Yemen’s politics have become the country’s new kingmaker.

A decade after Sheikh Al Houthi found himself pinned by military troops organized under the command of Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, one of al Islah’s highest ranking official, at the very heart of his dominion in Sa’ada; his son, Abdel-Malek Al Houthi has completely turned the table around. This time it is not the Houthis who stand besieged, this time it is Al Islah which has come to experience the bitter taste of defeat.

But how could one tribal faction, barely a political party managed to rise above all political clouds, especially since at its core it stands to represent a religious minority?

Not with the Houthis but for the Houthis

How can those who chant, “Death to Israel and death to America!” stand to command mass attention and garner widespread support?

There lies a mystery which has so far eluded the most astute of politicians in Yemen. Interestingly the answer could be quite simple, yet brutal as it underlines a massive oversight on the part of Yemen’s officials.

Following decades of political narcissism, egocentrism and a penchant for self-serving policies, state officials appear to have completely forgotten about the very people they are meant to be serving and representing. Cut off from the world, sheltered in their plush villas and life of privileges, Yemen’s political class has lost its connection to the people, having used and abused beyond all repair the trust of one people toward its ruling class.

In search of a new sense of direction many Yemenis found a familiar echo in the rebellion of the Houthis. As protesters responded in their hundreds and thousands to Abdel-Malek Al Houthi’s mobilization calls against the central government, it is not the Houthis per se they came to support, but rather the faction’s rejection and denunciation of state corruption, abuses of power and culture of impunity.

As Yemenis across all walks of life and religious backgrounds flocked to the capital, Sana’a to witness Al Houthi’ stands against the deep state, the last remnants of the former regime, thousands caught themselves rooting for the Zaidi faction, united by the same desire to see crumble Yemen’s last house of cards.

Rather than understand the rise of the Houthis as the victory of Shia Islam, or even that of Iran over Saudi Arabia’s hegemony in Yemen as some have suggested, would it not be more accurate to look at the Houthis as the vessel of all Yemenis’ discontent?

In the face of unbearable hardship, aggravated economic forecasts and a fast depreciating quality of life, Yemenis became to dissociate so entirely with mainstream politicians that they felt almost compelled to support the one faction, the Houthis, which sole agenda revolved around the complete and utter deposition of the state apparatus.

With no political program to speak off safe from calls to end corruption and terminate all foreign interventions in Yemen, the Houthis managed through their lack of “defined agenda” to universalize their appeal. An empty shell with but a slogan, the Houthis’ victory lied in their ability to reflect back what Yemenis sought to see in them.

Somewhat an organic political faction the Houthis have ridden Yemen’ summer of discontent and turned popular anger into a powerful weapon against the state.

Listening back to Abdel-Malek Al Houthi’s public addresses it is clear he has actively worked to include all Yemenis and speak for all Yemenis in his discourse, making a point not to exclude on the basis of religion, tribal affiliations or even political sensitivities.

Somewhat the perfect storm of Yemen’s politics it is how the Houthis will translate their popularity into political gains which will determine the longevity and reach of this movement, not their current appeal.

If the Houthis have successfully inspired they have yet to prove they can deliver on their promises, and this could prove far more challenging than securing tactical victories against Al Islah.

Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.