Sanaa, Yemen – Yemen’s Houthi movement has further expanded its presence, and visibility, in the capital Sanaa following the passing of a deadline set by the group’s leader for the reinstatement of a fuel subsidy and for the president to dissolve the country’s coalition government.
The standoff on Friday between the Houthis, who fought a stop-start war with Sanaa between 2004 and 2010, and the government has been simmering for the past week.
A presidential delegation was sent to meet Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the movement’s leader, in Saada, the Houthi heartland, on Thursday but had not been able to broker a deal in time for the August 22 deadline he had set the previous Sunday.
In an appearance on the Houthi-run Al Masira television channel, al-Houthi had accused the government of failing to fulfill the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month-long series of peace talks held in 2013 and 2014.
Al-Houthi also accused the cabinet led by Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwah of corruption, calling for fuel subsidies to be reinstated and the cabinet to be dissolved.
The Houthi leader also wants a new, technocratic government drawn down the same lines as the dialogue conference, where the Houthis were give six percent of seats.
In Sunday’s speech, al-Houthi called for his followers to hold daily marches in Sanaa to push for his demands.
On Monday, tens of thousands of Houthi supporters held a huge march through the capital, with thousands settling in tented encampments, watched by armed tribesmen who had taken up a prominent presence, on the outskirts of the city.
Although Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the president, has mooted the possibility of a new government, he has held firm on the fuel subsidy issue – the cost of which had threatened to bankrupt the country earlier in 2014 – and an agreement could not be reached.
On Thursday, al-Houthi appeared on television again calling for his supporters to hold their weekly Friday prayers on the road linking Sanaa with Yemen’s main airport, before setting up protest encampments in front of key ministry buildings.
Al-Houthi’s followers have scored huge military victories over tribal and Sunni groups elsewhere in the north of the country this year.
However, he reiterated earlier claims that his movement did not intend to take Sanaa by force, as local media have widely reported, and that its “revolution” would be peaceful.
In addition to sending a delegation to broker an agreement with the Houthis, Hadi has also increased the military presence in the capital, and is said to be unsure whether or not an agreement can feasibly be reached.
In what appeared to be the largest Houthi gathering to date, tens of thousands of people gathered on Airport Road on Friday morning to attend prayers before dispersing peacefully.
The movement’s followers then began the construction of protest camps in front of the ministries of interior, telecommunications and electricity.
“This is not just Ansar Allah [a term used by Houthis to describe themselves],” Mohammed al-Marwani, a 29-year-old Houthi supporter from Sanaa who attended the mass prayer session, told Al Jazeera.
“We support the people. We want the government to step down, for the price of fuel to go down and for the NDC outcomes to be implemented.”
We support the people. We want the government to step down, for the price of fuel to go down and for the NDC outcomes to be implemented
Al-Marwani went on to say that the movement had “not even started [its] revolution”.
“This is just the first step,” he said. “We are not scared, even if we all die. If we did not do this, it would be a slow death for us anyway.”
Hadi finds himself in a difficult position.
Although many Yemenis are concerned about the Houthis’ precipitous rise since the 2011 uprising that saw Hadi’s predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh unseated, they also broadly agree with al-Houthi’s criticisms of the transitional government and back his demands.
The latter point was made clear at a meeting with leading members of Yemen’s political establishment on Thursday, at which many political groups indicated that at a minimum they would like to see the current government replaced, particularly Prime Minister Basindwah.
The fuel subsidy cut, made in July, has led to tensions inside Yemen’s main political parties, the General People’s Congress, of which both Saleh and Hadi are members, and Islah, Yemen’s biggest Sunni Islamist party.
Al-Houthi, a government official says, is “clearly taking a populist approach,” in his attempts to build broad support for his movement beyond its base of Zaydi Shia tribesmen who were long marginalised under Saleh.
Islah’s leadership sees the Houthis as an existential threat, and is yet to state a clear position on the mounting protest in the capital.
Meanwhile, diplomats in the capital are becoming worried that al-Houthi is tapping into a seam of resentment towards the the foreign powers which have been backing Yemen’s political transition process.
In another televised speech broadcast after the Friday prayer session, al-Houthi attacked the US, the UK and Arab states for serving “their own interests” ahead of Yemen’s.
Echoes of his rhetoric could be heard at the prayer session, with a number of those in attendance drawing attention particularly to the US’ role in Yemen, where it has been conducting an aggressive drone campaign against al-Qaeda fighters.
The US operation has killed a number of civilians in the process while the capacity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local franchise of the group, has barely been dented.
“We don’t want Europe or the US to stay here,” al-Marwani said. “They are not helping. They are making things worse.
“The Americans with the drones – we are against al-Qaeda, but we are also against the drones.”
Sources with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations in Saada said on Friday night that they were yet to yield results, and that the situation remained volatile.
Al-Houthi has said that his followers will continue to escalate their protests until their demands are met.