The Middle East Channel

Yemen’s Islamists and the revolution

Yemen’s Islamists and the revolution

Islamist movements did not start Yemen’s revolution, but they have loomed large over its fate. Tawakkol Karman, an ex-member of Islah, a coalition party that includes Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her tireless political campaigning. Backers of outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh warned of the inexorable rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), even after the killing of ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki by a U.S. drone.

But as in much of the Arab world, the Yemeni revolution has presented both opportunities and challenges to its Islamists. At least five different Islamist trends have played important roles in the unfolding events — and some have fared better than others. Those struggling to help Yemen’s political transition must recognize the diversity and internal struggles among these Islamist trends, and be prepared to engage with them as part of the country’s political landscape.

The Islamist trend most directly involved in the popular revolution is undoubtedly the Islah party. Islah qualifies as the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, but should be understood as a coalition that includes conservative tribal leaders and prominent businessmen. Islah began as a rather reluctant supporter of the "revolutionary youth" which was calling for the departure of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the early days of 2011. As a key part of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the platform of the unified opposition established since the early 2000s, Islah appeared to be willing to make compromises and accept dialogue with the regime, then becoming its main interlocutor.

As Saleh appeared to be losing grip in the late spring, however, Islah moved to capture a position as a central actor of the revolutionary process. Its mobilizing capacity through its mosques, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and activists ended up restructuring much of the revolution, both physically on Change Square in Sanaa, and in terms of agenda. No other structure or movement seemed able to compete with it. This has made Islah a key broker in the political gamesmanship unfolding over the transition, even as "revolutionary youth" complain that it has hijacked the revolution.

Sensitive to such critiques, Islah’s leadership appears to have been willing to leave other players in the front row. It did not claim the position of prime minister of the national unity government that was announced in November 2011. But there should be no doubts about Islah’s capacity to mobilize electors massively when general elections are organized. The movement, with its tribal allies, is also trying hard to challenge the narrative according to which alternatives to Saleh are inexistent or are lacking responsibility.

A less well-understood trend is the quietist Salafis, with Yahya al-Hajuri of Dar al-Hadith institute in Dammaj at their head, who have reasserted their stance of loyalty to the regime in order to fight what they describe as a chaotic situation. This branch of Salafism has played hard to delegitimize in religious terms the popular uprising, stigmatizing the "revolutionary youth" as well as the Muslim Brotherhood for encouraging a process whose main beneficiaries are, in their eyes, the "enemies of Islam." Appearing as the last supporters of the regime may end up being costly in the long run but could also see the quietist Salafis emerge as the popular advocates of stability should the situation deteriorate significantly. Indeed, while precise data is hard to come by, it appears that the quietist Salafis have been losing ground over the past year.

But the Salafis too are changing in the face of popular revolution. An offshoot of the quietist branch of Salafism has been increasingly engaging in political activities for the last few years, neglecting issues of loyalty and criticism of party politics (hizbiyya). These politicized Salafis see the Yemeni revolutionary process as a new opportunity for overt engagement in the political sphere. With the revolution, members of the Hikma and Ihsan associations, likely emboldened by the success of al-Nour party in Egypt, have announced projects to create parties and participate in upcoming elections. Among them, Aqil al-Maqtari, with important support in Taiz, has established the League for Renaissance and Change. Despite being fragmented along regional lines, these initiatives are significant and politicized Salafis are likely to emerge as a new political force, one that analysts will need in the near future to understand beyond criminalizing stereotypes.

Another trend are the jihadist movements, which are more or less linked to AQAP. They have engaged in a variety of processes that have to a certain extent normalized them, fully embedding these actors in the Yemeni context and in what can be labeled a continuum of violence, particularly in the southern governorates. They have used the revolutionary events to legitimize their own historical narrative. This process has changed the meaning of an "al Qaeda" militant in Yemen and leaves space for possible interactions and dialogue with other social and political actors.

Jihadi sympathizers have gained some control over territory in part because of the growing disorganization of the central state and of its shrinking military resources. Effective control over territory (in Jaar for instance) has favored a change in focus toward fighting a guerilla war against the regime and its allies and, at the local level, developing public policies addressing grievances of the population. Such a shift (which should not only be understood as the result of the assassination in September 2011 of Awlaki, the so-called mastermind of the transnational outreach of AQAP) has in a way transferred militant energy and resources on the Yemeni agenda. This process, which is not necessarily centralized or self-conscious, is likely to gain momentum and highlights that confrontation, repression, and the drone attacks strategies are hardly able to address the complexity of the issues that are at stake in revolutionary Yemen.

At another end of the Islamist spectrum, Zaydi revivalists (drawing from a Shiite background) with the so-called "Houthi movement" have also been directly affected by the revolutionary process. Over the course of 2011, the diminishing military capacity of the regime has forced it to focus on the capital, Sanaa, and therefore, in effect, to abandon much of the Saada governorate and its surroundings to the Houthi rebels it had been fighting since 2004. The Houthi leadership has simultaneously taken divergent options — claiming to accept to play the institutional game including, for instance, by favoring the initiative of Muhammad Miftah to establish the Ummah party or letting some of its sympathizers reach out on Change Square in Sanaa toward non-Zaydi activists, while at the same time engaging in violence with competing Sunni Islamist groups, particularly quietist Salafis in Dammaj or members of Islah in al-Jawf.

The long-running, intense Yemeni crisis is thus radically reshaping the opportunities and the challenges to all Islamist trends. These movements are likely to continue being central actors at the national level and to emerge as necessary interlocutors at the international level. The most significant trend today appears to be one drawing, in the long run, the various Islamist movements toward greater institutionalization, inclusion in the political process, and eventually participation in future elections. But if that political process fails to take hold, the potential for mayhem and armed confrontation should not be neglected, including in the form of inter-sectarian warfare.

Both diverging outcomes obviously depend on internal variables and on the attitudes of Yemenis. But international actors can make a difference. The West should acknowledge the popular legitimacy of these Islamist movements, as well as their great internal diversity, and be prepared to engage with them as an important part of Yemen’s future.

Laurent Bonnefoy is a researcher based in the Levant at the Institut français du Proche-Orient, and author of "Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity" (Columbia University Press).