Walking last month into the Shabaab al-Sumud tent in Yemen’s Maydan Taghayr — Change Square — I was greeted by eager faces and talkative qat chewers. "We love Americans," a Houthi supporter nodded his head vigorously, and, in doing so, revealed an enormous poster on the tent flap behind him on which the group’s infamous slogan was inscribed: "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, a curse on the Jews." Seeing my eyes widen, he offered, "We hate American policies, not people. The roots of the slogan lie in America’s war on the Iraqi people and support for Israeli policies against the Palestinians. Let me tell you what it is that the Houthis want…"
Even the dedicated observer of Yemeni affairs can be forgiven for not fully grasping the complexity of the country’s political milieu during this shaky revolutionary period. Researching Yemeni politics, one often feels stuck in an intractable game of telephone. Part of this is the grammar of how information spreads in the Middle East, which is often informal and decentralized. But part of it can be related to the political ecology of the country and the palpable gap between the geographical center and periphery. The history of the political evolution of the Shiite "Houthi" rebels of Saada province is no different. Unraveling what the Houthis want may indicate how other independent and marginalized groups, like the southern separatists, will navigate a post-Saleh Yemen. The political integration of the Houthis is one among the myriad problems faced by newly minted President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who underwent his official installation ceremony today in Sanaa. An assessment of Houthi interests also suggests a larger difference than we realize between the opposition movements in cities like Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, and the supporters they claim to represent in rural areas.
Even before the mass protest movement calling for Ali Abdullah Saleh’s immediate ouster began heating up last spring — long before dozens of provincial officers quit their post or before there were battles between security forces and protesters from the Saudi Arabian border to Aden — Yemen’s central government exercised very limited control over vast swaths of Yemeni territory. In many provinces, the Yemeni army has occupied little more than walled military garrisons, and officers often had to ask permission from local sheikhs before embarking on missions. However, Saleh’s regime has regularly attempted to brutally impose authority over many of these regions. One area in which this strategy backfired is the northwest most province of Saada — a rugged region in northern Yemen along the Saudi border. Starting in 2004, the war between Yemen’s central government and the rebels, called "Houthis" after their assassinated leader, has displaced upwards of 300,000 people, destroyed Zaidi religious sites, and disrupted age-old systems of tribal conflict mediation. The on again off again conflict has spilled over into Hajjah, Amran, and al-Jawf provinces, and even incited a brief Saudi air campaign in 2009. Throughout the war, Saleh’s regime arrested and forcibly disappeared people from Yemen’s northern provinces and Sanaa thought to be connected to the Houthis, clogging the judiciary system and the jails with hundreds of prisoners related to this conflict.
As my co-authors and I argued in a 2010 RAND report, the violence in the north damaged "entire communities and local economies… [causing] first-order effects in the realm of human security and possible negative consequences for the resilience of cultural norms that might, in other cases, diminish conflict."
Saleh rallied support for the war first by casting the Houthis as proto-Hezbollah foot soldiers for Iran — a spurious claim dismissing that Houthis are Zaidis and follow a doctrine quite different from Iranians and Lebanese Shiites — and then by painting them as separatists and terrorists. Despite the Houthis’ rather unsavory slogan, their early stated goals included regional autonomy, not separatism, and freedom of religious Shiite education, which made them the enemy of radical Sunni Salafis and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While those worried about Houthi secessionism have pointed to their long-standing and recently renewed links with the southern secessionist Hirak movement, the Houthis describe themselves as independents in a rapidly changing political process, not secessionists. There are still basic military garrisons and border guards in Houthi-controlled areas in the north, but the Houthis are at peace with these forces. If they wanted to secede, the argument goes, they would have expelled the remaining forces last year. Indeed, after the protest movement began last February, Saleh withdrew his fighting garrisons from the region in order to concentrate on his tough luck in Sanaa. Seeing an opportunity amidst the chaos, the movement’s charismatic leader, Abdalmalik al-Houthi, immediately sent unarmed Houthi supporters down to Sanaa to participate in the revolution.
On the one hand, city-dwelling, college-educated twenty and thirty-somethings sit in several pro-Houthi tents at Taghayr 24/7, watching generator-powered al-Arabiya, and waxing rhapsodic about democracy, equality, and justice. A few of these youths have been arrested for supporting the Houthis, and some have even visited Saada. But for the most part, the pro-Houthi Shabab al-Sumud (literally "Steadfast Youth") tent is frequented by Zaidi youth from urban areas like Taiz and Sanaa who have limited to no experience with actual war. For them, the movement appeals to a sense of social justice; it offers one among many new outlets to express disenchantment with the regime’s repressive apparatus.
When asked about the Houthi’s goals in the revolution, Shabab al-Sumud youth leader Ali al-Imad emphasized that the group is inherently religious, not political, with Zaidi revivalist roots. Indeed, the Houthi movement stems partly from a reaction to increasing Salafi presence in historically Zaidi-controlled Saada in the 1980s. At the same time, Imad pointed to the importance of the group’s political front. Houthis believe that "Islam and politics are fundamentally compatible," and hope to get involved officially in Yemeni political life, that is, if they feel that political progress reflects the spirit of the revolution as "democratic and free." In this vein, they were among the first to boycott the Saudi-penned, United States-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement for Yemen because as Imad put it: "We are anti-oppression, for freedom of expression, and against American invasions and foreign influence. The GCC agreement is none of these."
Beyond the southern movement, the Houthis in Change Square have formed a number of coalitions with parties of diverse political bends. In early January they joined in a coalition with the Baath party and the Union of Popular Forces (a Zaidi party) against al Islah Islamist party; they have had links with the Socialists (Hizb al-Ishtiraki) for the past several years; and they allegedly held talks with the Joint Meeting Parties last month. A fuss was recently made about al-Houthi’s letter of support for the newly formed Zaidi ‘Ulema-led party, al-Ummah. But al-Houthi and Imad have made it quite clear that this party does not represent them either. All of these alliances are tactical, suggested Imad, and when the Houthis are ready to participate in politics, they will create their own party.
Much of this information tracks with press office releases and speeches by Al-Houthi. Al-Houthi met with officials from the European Community this month and promised U.N. envoy Jamal Bin Omar in December that his supporters would indeed form a political party and participate in the forthcoming national reconciliation dialogue. During a packed February 3 celebration of the prophet’s birthday (Mawlid al-Nabuwi) — a holiday repressed by Saleh during his war on the North — al-Houthi called for the creation of a civil state in Yemen. Al-Houthi’s media outfit, Ansar Allah (Supporters of Allah), also released several key conciliatory statements, on their willingness to accept Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar’s apology for the Saada wars and suggesting that despite Houthi opposition to the election, polling centers in Saada were operational and the rights of voters would be protected.
On the other hand, there remain troubling indicators in and around Saada suggesting the Houthis are neither so moderate nor so democratically inclined. Despite some rhetorical support for the country’s political transformation, their rather vehement boycotting of the GCC process — including last Tuesday’s referendum — their increasingly hard-handed style of rule in the north, and smoldering sectarian violence sets them apart from other opposition groups.
First, Houthi reticence until now to meaningfully engage in political life through the elections and forming a party suggests they remain uncertain about their political motives. The Houthis and other independents are right in emphasizing that last Tuesday’s uncompetitive, one-candidate elections were merely procedural. What will be significant is a change in institutions, including military restructuring, judicial and constitutional reforms that give the state autonomy from previous factions within it. Yet, despite al-Houthi’s statement that the group would not prevent the voting process, reporting suggests only one polling station was open in Saada last Tuesday, and voters in the area were allowed to forgo dipping their fingers in ink for fear of Houthi retribution. A massive march held in Saada city to boycott the elections, and reports of Houthis storming Islah party headquarters to tear up Hadi campaign posters and replace them with posters about boycotting the election, is evidence of voter intimidation and the silencing of non-Houthi supporters.
Further, Houthi supporters have yet to form a political party and step beyond the merely tactical alliances in Change Square. Indeed, given the patterns of patrimonialism in Yemeni politics, links to the central government are perhaps the only way to bring the requisite reconstruction money to the devastated northwest. As a contact in Sanaa whose brother fought with the Houthis asked, "What do they want out of the revolution, if not political parties?"
Second, while the relative security, electricity, and increased social services are a step up from a near decade of battles with the government, anecdotes suggest that Saada today is being run with an iron fist. For example, the strategic city of Dahyan, commonly referred to as the "Zaidi Najaf" for its historical religious importance, has a 6 p.m. curfew for women, and non-Zaidis are not allowed to live in the city. An interviewee whose family is from Dahyan noted that the Houthi "Death to America, Death to Israel" slogan is sung at every prayer by men who pump their right fists in the air like Hezbollah. Anti-American rhetoric remains pervasive in Houthi statements. In past few weeks, the Houthis have started an online campaign to expel the U.S. ambassador from Yemen, and further internationalized their propaganda by supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and publically condemning the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. While the northwest has always been extremely conservative and wary of outside interference, it is unclear how such Zaidi fundamentalism and xenophobic rhetoric can be conducive to integration into a larger Yemeni democratic process.
Finally, while al-Houthi consistently argues that the group has no political goals and is only temporarily controlling the northwestern provinces until a more appropriate figure can assume control — U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein recently expressed concern "about conflicts between Houthis and others in the north and a fairly aggressive effort on their part to expand their territory and their control." Fear of Houthi encroachment upon pockets where residents do not support them has recently led to spats between Salafi Sunnis at the Damaj madrasa in Saada, with hundreds dead from both sides since last fall. Sectarian fighting between pro and anti-Houthi tribes last month spread to the province of Hajja and displaced an estimated 2,000 people, adding to the nearly 200,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) there from previous rounds of fighting. The sectarian nature of these conflicts threatens to evolve into a proxy war in a way that the previous battles between the Houthis and the government of Yemen did not. The immense scale of online propaganda about the conflict suggests increased Saudi interest and thus Sunni internationalization of what used to be a highly localized conflict. On the Shiite side, recent reports about an intercepted Iranian ship carrying mortars and weapons for Houthi re-supply have lead to new speculation about Iranian exploitation of the conflict. The ratcheting up of rhetoric about Iranian links to the Houthis — essentially depicting them as foreign — without hard evidence is an impediment to Houthi political integration and that should be avoided.
Ultimately, despite so much speculation about what the Houthis want, it is not clear they actually know. Those sympathetic to the Houthis have argued that the revolution has changed them — it has encouraged the once defensive movement to put down its arms, begin to articulate its goals, and come to terms with a political process — however slowly it is progressing. This may have serious benefits for them in the future, including autonomy, lasting security, and much-needed reconstruction. According to their detractors, however, we should look to fighting on the ground in Saada and Hajjah, as well as Houthi reticence to take part in the mainstream operations of the changing political scene, as evidence of the group’s nefarious modus operandi. Perhaps neither extreme is the case. In the wake of humanitarian crisis, sectarian tension, and persistent paranoia about Saudi and U.S. intervention, Sadans are more likely simply trying to rebuild their communities, and redefine themselves and their place in the Yemeni state, and vis-à-vis the international community. This contrast between the context of the center and the periphery may explain some of the disconnect between Houthi rhetoric and Houthi action. Indeed, while the youth movement preaches unity, democracy, and peace, Abdalmalik al-Houthi has thus far proven non-committal to the institutional paths needed to achieve these things.
Madeleine Wells is a PhD student at George Washington University.
Her research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science.