Sanaa, Yemen – Thousands of supporters of Yemen’s Houthi movement have flooded Sanaa in a public display of strength the day after their leader publicly called for the government to be dissolved.
The group’s decision to protest in the capital on Monday has raised concerns of a potential outbreak of violence between Shia Houthis and the government or its Sunni political rivals, the Islah party.
“We are here to overthrow the government,” said Masr al-Sharafi, a 30-year-old Houthi supporter from Sanaa. He is angry about “corruption” and “the huge increase in the fuel price” after the government slashed subsidies.
In a televised speech on August 17, Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi called for his supporters to mount protests in Sanaa and other major cities, and to reoccupy the Change Square protest encampment, an integral part of the country’s 2011 uprising.
The Houthis are a religious and social movement, also known as Ansarallah, that includes an armed wing.
The Yemeni government has not officially commented on the protest, but a government official who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said: “They [Houthis] build a presence, provoke violence and react with violence.”
Ali al-Bokhaiti, a spokesman for the Houthis, disputed those claims, telling Al Jazeera that the protest was “aimed at meeting our goals, which are the goals of everyone in Yemen”. He said the protests would be peaceful.
Demonstrators arrived in Sanaa by bus from neighbouring provinces, and gathered at Change Square near Sanaa University, before marching in a loop around the city. Two new makeshift protest camps have been set up in the north and south of the city.
Yemen’s interior ministry estimated that 10,000 protesters participated in the march, while Houthi organisers put the number closer to 100,000.
Not all of the protesters were affiliated with the Houthis. “I am here by myself,” said Amjid al-Iryani, 26. “I am not Houthi, but the government has found no solution to our problems. It does not do anything. It needs to change.”
I am not Houthi, but the government has found no solution to our problems. It does not do anything. It needs to change.
Protesters chanted slogans against the government, as well as the US and Israel.
Since then, the group has consolidated control over the northern provinces of Sadah and Amran, which borders the capital, while routing tribal and Islamist fighters loyal to Islah.
In July, the Houthis briefly seized Amran city, 50km north of Sanaa, killing the main military commander in the area who was widely seen as an Islah loyalist.
Some government officials worried that the Houthis could use a violent reaction from Islah members as an excuse to allow their fighters to enter the city.
Bokhaiti, the Houthi spokesman, denied that the group had any plans to fight in the city, but said the Houthis had a right to defend themselves. “If there is an official attack by the government, of course we will defend ourselves,” he said. “But if there is some accident we will try to resolve it peacefully.”