Coming In From the Cold

For years the Houthis have been derided as subversives and separatists. Now they're sitting at the table in Sanaa.


SANAA, Yemen — As a seemingly endless line of cars snaked its way into the northern Yemeni city of Saada, the atmosphere was festive. The people had come to attend the funeral of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the man whose name became synonymous with one of the country’s major political and religious movements. Yet while the Houthis and their supporters were no doubt mourning their leader’s death, the event, which drew hundreds of thousands of attendees earlier this year, was also a celebration of sorts.

Such a gathering would have been unthinkable only a few years ago when the whole of Saada governorate was under a wartime blockade. But after nearly a decade of fighting with the central government, the Houthi movement has enjoyed a rapid post-Arab Spring increase in both support and legitimacy.

"They are sitting at the table negotiating with all the others, including those that fought these wars against them," said Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special advisor on Yemen, on a recent trip to Saada. This new dynamic is a welcome change from the recent past, when Yemeni officials routinely derided the Houthis as Iranian-backed "terrorists" (a claim the group vehemently denies). But the former rebels’ slingshot-like entrance into mainstream politics is also raising serious concerns about what comes next.

How much autonomy the Houthis will ultimately acquire, and whether those at the table have the will to let peaceful negotiations take their course, are among the critical unanswered questions. Making the situation even more precarious is the fact that all of the armed groups participating in the discussions share a deep-seated mutual distrust. (The Houthis, for their part, say they command the loyalty of some 100,000 fighters, though the assertion is impossible to verify.) As long as those fears are held at bay, however, the era of unprecedented Houthi inclusion will continue.

The Houthi movement started as a confluence of revivalist Zaydi Islam, a moderate Shiite offshoot, and anti-American sentiment. In the early 2000s, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the son of a prominent Zaydi scholar, began giving Friday sermons against what he viewed as the growing dangers of American hegemony. The idea caught on, and with the help of their uncompromising slogan ("Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!"), support for al-Houthi’s movement grew. This soon attracted scrutiny from then-President Ali Abullah Saleh, who saw the movement as a potential threat to his control and the influence of his tribal allies.

Tensions reached a breaking point in 2004, when Saleh tried to have al-Houthi arrested. Three months of violence erupted, ending in al-Houthi’s death at the hands of government forces. This first war was followed by five more in Saada and surrounding areas. Over the years thousands are thought to have died, while over 300,000 have been internally displaced.

The spiral of violence may very well have continued if the Arab Spring had not spread to Yemen. The uprisings diverted the regime’s attention and opened political space that the Houthis eagerly helped to fill. Taking on the alias Ansar Allah, or "supporters of god," the group’s anti-establishment, anti-American message resonated with Yemenis looking for change. The Houthis made inroads with both the Zaydis, who make up 45 percent of the Yemeni population, and others who, after years of witnessing mismanagement and corruption, had lost respect for the established political parties.

"The Houthis are evolving as a group," said April Alley, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Rebranding themselves as Ansar Allah is certainly an indication that they are trying to become a more national movement as opposed to associating themselves with a family name."

Their territorial expansion has been as significant as their political one. The Houthis are now virtually in control of Saada city and much of the rest of the governorate. They man their own security checkpoints and boast well-organized police and paramilitary wings. Their green-lettered banners are ubiquitous. Just as importantly, Houthi support is also spreading beyond their stronghold to areas where their presence had been comparatively muted — including Sanaa, the capital.

The Houthis’ quick transformation from a repressed insurgent group to a potent political force has left the political establishment little choice but to seek to integrate it. This is partly a function of broader efforts to boost political inclusion following Saleh’s ouster. But it’s also a recognition of the Houthis’ formidable physical strength and broadening appeal. Progress has so far been admirable, but has resulted in few tangible solutions.

Amid the shelled-out buildings and piles of rubble that sit as stark reminders of the all too recent past, a tense calm settled over Saada following presidential elections in 2012. "There is cooperation from the government, especially after the success of the popular revolution," said Yahiya al-Mahdi, a deputy governor of the province and Ansar Allah adherent. He goes on to explain that there is a tacit agreement on security in which the sides each "play a role." The more general consensus, however, is that the Houthis hold the upper hand in the relationship.

Despite early comments by Houthi leaders, the group has also shown a surprising willingness to participate in the political transition process. "People were at a crossroads: war or dialogue," said Abdulkareem Jadban, a Houthi member of parliament. "And dialogue was the best way to arrive at a solution for Yemen."

Jadban is referring to the ongoing National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a pillar of the internationally brokered transition roadmap that was adopted as a condition of Saleh relinquishing the presidency. Held in Sanaa, the six-month conference — which may very well be extended beyond its scheduled Sept. 18 end date — is meant to bring together 565 people from across the political spectrum to discuss the new constitution and other matters fundamental to the future of the state. How to deal with Saada is among the most important issues being tackled. Ansar Allah was allotted 35 seats and its delegates have been active contributors.

The Houthis are playing politics in the more traditional sense as well. They have, for example, been cooperating with other formerly marginalized groups in Yemen, such as factions of the southern independence movement (Hirak) and the socialist party. They are also seriously considering forming an official political party or coalition through which they can contest elections.

Although political dialogue is preferable to conflict, there is a long way still to go. The Houthis have won limited concessions during the NDC, the most notable of which is an official apology from the government for the Saada wars. The NDC committee tasked with addressing the issue has also agreed on 37 other points, including provisions related to disarmament, the release of prisoners and religious tolerance, but implementation is another matter entirely. In short, a permanent Saada solution remains elusive and the road is becoming rockier.

"Our relationship with the government is very tense," said Jadban in June, just days after government forces shot a number of Houthi protesters in front of the National Security Bureau in Sanaa (official claims that demonstrators were armed have not been independently substantiated). Later that month, a suicide bomber attacked a market in Saada, leaving at least two dead.

More recently, there have been an escalating series of clashes between the Houthis and followers of Sunni Islam (Salafis as well as tribesmen supporting the Islamist Islah party). The re-emergence of sectarian and political conflict is a development that worries many observers. The Houthis are armed with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons. So are their enemies. And no one has ruled out using force in cases of self-defense, a justification with blurry connotations. Return to open hostilities could have destabilizing ripple effects.

Up till now though, the Houthis’ swift post-Arab Spring growth and arrival on the political scene have been accommodated relatively smoothly. But as Yemen’s transition continues, the way forward is still uncertain. In part this is because the Houthis have yet to present a political platform that placates their skeptics.

"If the people of Saada want independence, we can take it. But we don’t want anything except a modern civil state that rules all Yemenis," proclaimed Abu Mohammed, a resident of Saada and a Houthi supporter, more bluntly echoing the vague stance of the movement’s leadership. Others add, in equally nebulous terms, that the group is prepared to cede ground once a capable and tolerant government is in place.

This highlights the point that the Houthi issue does not exist in a vacuum. A solution for them is inextricably linked to debates about the independence of the south, whether Yemen should become a federal state, and how the constitution should be written, among other foundational topics. A fully articulated Houthi position may therefore not emerge until a more basic question is answered. As April Alley of ICG asks, "After moving out of this transition period, how does power settle?"

That remains anyone’s guess. Yet while Yemeni politics has long been a delicate balancing act, it’s already clear that the Houthis currently carry more weight than ever.

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