The improbable tale of how the Houthis seized control of Yemen's revolution.
- By Peter SalisburyPeter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Sanaa, Yemen, whose work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, and Foreign Policy, among others.
SANAA, Yemen — On Oct. 9, a suicide bombing in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square killed as many as 47 supporters of a group known as the Houthis, who had been gathering for a political rally. For many outside of Yemen, this was the first time they had heard reports of the group, a Shiite movement that now controls the capital of this strategically important country.
For Yemenis, this is a depressingly familiar scenario. Events in their country, even the siege and capture of the capital, usually go unnoticed until the local al Qaeda franchise does something despicable enough to elicit fleeting interest from abroad. There is a momentary scramble to explain events, to contextualize this richly complex place in a few brief sentences before indifference descends once again. The country, it seems, can only be seen through the lenses of terrorism, the war on terror, and geopolitics.
But the fact remains that in recent months, the Houthis have upended the balance of power in Yemen, forcing their way into a position where they have a say in political decision-making at the highest level. They have seized control of the capital and kicked once-powerful rivals into the dust. That means that it is probably important to have an understanding of who they are, how they got here, and — most importantly — what they plan to do next.
A decade ago, the Houthis weren’t much to talk about: a small collection of religious students, tribesmen and intellectuals reeling from the loss of their founder-leader, the Zaydi Shiite cleric Hussein al-Houthi, the man from whom they take their name, at the hands of the Yemeni security forces. But over the past ten years the Houthis have undergone a significant evolution, morphing from a religious revivalist group into a movement that is one part political party to two parts heavily armed militia. Their path to Sanaa was laid through a potent mix of antiestablishment populism, religious traditionalism, hard-won military nous, and outright hard power — and, some suggest, a little help from their friends.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hussein al-Houthi, a onetime member of parliament who resigned because of what he saw as ingrained corruption in the capital, became a cheerleader for the revival of Zaydism, a Shiite offshoot largely unique to north Yemen whose elite families, including Hussein al-Houthi’s, once ruled the country. He also became a vocal critic of the role of foreign powers in the region during the War on Terror, penning the group’s infamous sarkha chant: "Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam."
But dissidence came at a price, and then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh moved to quash the upstart movement. In September 2004, Hussein was cornered in a cave in the northwestern governorate of Sadah, shot, and killed. Isolated in Sadah, his followers spent the next six years fighting for survival against forces loyal to then-Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the al-Ahmars, a tribal family that helped to found Islah, a coalition of tribal and Sunni Islamist groups. Both Mohsen and the Ahmars come from the lower classes of Yemeni society — in colloquial terms they are qabilis, or tribesmen, although the Ahmars are sheikhs, tribal leaders. Tribal families were subordinate to families like the al-Houthis, who were part of the sayyid ruling class, descendants of the prophet Mohammed who ruled Yemen as a religious monarchy for a millennium, before the 1962 revolution. The uprising overturned the old order, and the sayyids were deliberately marginalized in the republic while military and tribal players like Mohsen and the Ahmars ruled the roost. Unsurprisingly, they were loath to see any move towards a reversal of the new status quo.
Yet the Houthis survived the six-year pummeling, and in the process they became a highly efficient guerrilla movement accustomed to acting as a defensive force, taking, holding, and expanding territorial control to bolster their ability to resist fresh attacks. In 2011, as unrest spread across the region, that position began to shift.
In February of 2011, Abdel Malik, Hussein’s brother and his successor as leader of the movement, dropped the religious rhetoric he had used in speeches in the past and announced that he was backing a mounting uprising in Sanaa, decrying corruption, cronyism, and lack of public services — and, of course, foreign interventionism. The group appealed to many Yemenis, even leftists and Sunnis who had little interest in Zaydi dogma, as an antiestablishment force in a playing field dominated by people who had long cooperated with the Saleh regime.
The uprising soon descended into inter-elite violence, with Mohsen and the Ahmars attempting to wrest control of the capital from Saleh under the pretext of revolutionary fervor. The situation created an opening for the Houthis, who were given more or less free rein to seize control of Sadah. Over the next two years, they would expand their territorial control to encompass Amran, the Ahmars’ heartland, and al-Jawf, a gas-rich province to the east of Sadah.
To win territory, the Houthis adapted their hard won defensive-offensive strategy and their newfound status as an antiestablishment force. They developed an approach of sending representatives to approach tribal leaders, normally those who shared their Zaydi heritage, and playing up long-running grievances in the area, along with their own outsider credentials. Their new supporters promoted the cause in their areas, posting the red white and green text of the sarkha on banners. When local leaders — often people loyal to Mohsen, the Ahmars, or Islah, retaliated — Houthi militias would appear suddenly, and, with the support of sympathetic tribes, seize the area. By early 2012, the group had seized dozens of tanks and huge quantities of heavy weapons and could handily outgun most of their rivals and expanded territorially over the course of 2013 and 2014. In Sanaa, the Houthis would use more or less the same approach, albeit on vastly larger scale.
Conditions were ripe for the group to enter the capital. Sanaa is home to a number of traditionally Zaydi families, plenty of intellectuals and liberals fed up with the remnants of the Saleh regime, and many of others who do not approve of the way the country is being run. Living standards have scarcely improved in Yemen in the three years since the uprising and elite infighting of 2011. Half the population is out of work and a similar proportion under the poverty line. A roster of names familiar from the Saleh era occupied the top jobs in government as part of a power-sharing agreement. Corruption is endemic — worse, even, than it was under Saleh.
Yemenis who supported the 2011 uprising have become dejected, realizing that they are unlikely to see tangible improvements in the way the country is run. Broadly inclusive talks held in 2013 and 2014 aimed at producing the basis for a new constitution have led to little in the way of meaningful political or social change. Many complain that Hadi has been more focused on building his own power than he has been on seeing through Yemen’s widely touted political transition to democracy.
Others complain that Islah, the Sunni political party, which holds 30 percent of cabinet seats in the transitional government, has been attempting a power grab of its own, replacing senior civil servants with party functionaries to ensure long-lasting influence over the way Yemen is run. Infighting between Islah and Saleh’s General People’s Congress, which still controls half of Yemen’s ministries, is widely seen as having slowed down the government further, leading to additional resentment of the old regime.
Anger has also grown over Hadi’s support for the use of U.S.-operated drones to kill suspected terrorists, attacks that have left scores of civilians dead. A military campaign against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — purportedly supported by many Islah members, including Mohsen and the Ahmars — led to further questions about U.S. involvement in Yemen and Hadi’s efficacy as a leader. When, in July 2014, the president increased gasoline and diesel prices in hopes of averting a brewing fiscal crisis and easing fuel supply issues, residents of the capital were outraged by the subsequent increase in the cost of living.
Each misstep has increased support for the Houthis. "People think we want to invade the capital from the outside," a Houthi supporter told me in early 2014. "But we are already there. All that needs to happen is that all the supporters of Abdel Malik pick up their guns and walk out the door and we will win."
On Aug. 17, Abdel Malik appeared on a Houthi-run television channel to make the case against the government. He announced that his supporters would flood into Sanaa the next day, setting up camps and holding daily protests until their demands were met. The revolution would be peaceful, he said. But if the protestors were attacked, the Houthis would respond. The next day, Yemenis took to the streets in their thousands. (The photo above shows anti-government protesters chanting at a protest camp in Sanaa on Sept. 12.)
As the Houthis ramped up their activities in the following weeks Hadi repeatedly called for a peaceful resolution. He wanted to keep the political transition on track, and war would be disastrous, politically and economically, he said.
But a more worrying rumor was circulating in Sanaa: that the president was hesitating because the Yemeni equivalent of the National Security Council had warned him he could not win a war against the Houthis. The army, weakened by the divisions of 2011, was struggling to control the south of the country against AQAP. Hadi had little choice but to broker a peace deal.
An agreement was not forthcoming. The Houthis, their critics charge, were stalling, preparing their assault on the capital. When, on Sept. 9, for the second time in as many days, members of Yemen’s security forces opened fire on Houthi protestors while they tried to set up a protest camp in front of the prime minister’s office, killing seven people, Yemen held its breath. The Houthis had been attacked. How would they respond?
As Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, met with Abdel Malik in Sadah in a last-ditch attempt at finding a peaceful resolution on Sept. 17, fighting broke out in a northwestern suburb of Sanaa. The Houthis’ target soon became clear. Fighters closed in on a military camp of Mohsen loyalists that was the biggest military installation in the capital. Four days later the encampment, and the capital, fell after days of bombardment by Houthi artillery. On Sept. 21, Hadi and representatives of the country’s political class signed a peace agreement with the Houthis in what was widely viewed as a capitulation to their assault on the capital. In a matter of months, the Houthis had taken on forces that had underpinned, and then toppled, the Saleh regime’s hard power for three decades — and won easily.
There is little doubt in the minds of Yemenis as to who controls Sanaa now. Houthi checkpoints punctuate the streets of the capital and Houthi men sit in front of government buildings, guarding them, they say, from AQAP — an argument reinforced by the Oct. 9 suicide bombing. "I think even the Houthis were surprised by how quickly they were able to take Sanaa in the end," a senior Western diplomat told me a few days after the Houthi takeover was complete. "The Houthis to all intents have complete control in Sanaa militarily and thus politically. The president is still in power, but it remains unclear to what extent he will be able to exercise that power."
Many are asking how such a small religious group became Yemen’s preeminent kingmaker. Washington and Riyadh accuse the group of being backed by the regime in Iran and by Hezbollah, another insurgent Shiite group from Lebanon, for whom Houthi leaders have expressed admiration in the past. But the group denies these claims.
Others point the finger at Saleh, arguing that the former president eased the Houthis’ southward path as an act of vengeance against Mohsen and the Ahmars, former allies who betrayed him in 2011. Former members of the Republican Guard, an elite military unit run by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali until 2013, supported the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, officials and diplomats in the capital claim. Others mutter that Hadi, in an attempt to use the Houthis to weaken Mohsen and the Ahmars, overplayed his hand and let the Houthis go too far.
Now what? The peace deal means that, for the first time, the group has a say in the selection of a new prime minister and government, and its people are likely to receive cabinet positions. But are they really interested in being bit-part players in someone else’s government? Can they take on AQAP and win? And what does Abdel Malik want? Islah has long charged that he wants to build a Zaydi theocracy modeled on Iran.
A week after the peace deal was signed, Abu Ali al-Hakim, the man widely accredited planning the Houthi takeover of the capital, made a rare public appearance in the capital. Like most of the group’s northern leadership, little is known about al-Hakim and he rarely speaks to unaffiliated media outlets.
Did he expect more fighting, I asked him? "No. We are part of the Yemeni community. Whatever they decide, we will follow." But Abdel Malik has said that the government must take the fight to AQAP, a position that is only likely to have intensified after the Oct. 9 bombing, the deadliest among a wave of assaults by the group since the Houthi takeover.
Did he count Saleh among the "corrupt people" in Yemen that the group purports to oppose? "Corruption is everywhere in Yemen," he said. "The people will correct the effect of corruption." There would be no straight answers.
But nearby, a young Houthi gunman from Sa’dah who said his name was Abduljalil stopped to talk to me. The Houthis controlled Sanaa, he agreed. And then, with a religiosity that belied the Houthis’ carefully maintained near-secular political identity, he told me that they would not stop there: "The war will be everywhere. We will go to Saudi Arabia and defeat the corrupt and the kuffar," he said, using the Arabic word for "unbeliever." And then, with a smile, he hitched his rifle over his shoulder and ambled off.