The Houthis’ endgame in Yemen
The Houthis are trying to resurrect the imamate that once ruled Yemen, but they lack support from most Yemenis.
The Houthi rebels’ December 4 execution of Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh sent a massive shock across Yemen and the Middle East.
The dictator, who ruled for 33 years, had remained one of the most influential actors in Yemen even after a 2011 popular uprising forced him to step down. Saleh, having survived assassination attempts and other threats over three decades, often seemed invincible and even immortal.
But while it was shocking, Saleh’s killing did not necessarily surprise Yemenis. His recent alliance with his former enemy, the Houthis, had remained one of convenience; it was simply a matter of time before it fell apart and old hatreds resurfaced. Indeed, the Houthis ultimately executed Saleh to avenge his 2004 killing of their founder, Hussein Badr al-Dein al-Houthi, in his cave hideout in their northern Yemen stronghold of Saada.
The tension between Saleh and the Houthis had been mounting over the past year as the Houthis consolidated their control over government ministries and military forces that were previously under Saleh’s control, pushing Saleh and his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), into a subordinate status.
The situation escalated in mid-August after Saleh publicly called the Houthis a militia. In return, the Houthis called Saleh a traitor and vowed to have him bear the consequences of his words. The Houthis became more wary when Saleh gathered thousands of supporters to celebrate the GPC’s 35th anniversary on August 24, 2017.
They became convinced that Saleh had been talking to the Saudi-led coalition fighting them in the civil war, hoping to switch sides and cut a deal with Riyadh. Clashes escalated after the Houthis stopped a convoy transporting Saleh’s son in Sanaa and exchanged fire with his guards, killing one of his senior aides.
Perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, Saleh’s death has been mourned even by many of his enemies in Yemen, including some of the youth activists who rose up against him in 2011 and others who lost family members at the hands of his troops during the past three years of civil war. Partly, this is because of the extremely brutal way in which the Houthis killed him, which violated Yemeni tribal and cultural norms.
But it is also because many Yemenis, however much they despised Saleh, saw in his recent defection from the Houthi alliance the last opportunity to defeat the rebel group, which many view as a much larger threat.
The Houthis do not represent all Zaydis in Yemen.
The war originally broke out in September 2014 when the Houthis teamed up with military forces loyal to Saleh to overrun Sanaa and overthrow the government led by Saleh’s successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi of the GPC.
Unfortunately, over the past three years, some of what has been written about the Houthis’ rise to power has inaccurately depicted the Houthis as a popular indigenous opposition movement and as the victims of religious and political oppression trying to take their legitimate place in Yemen’s political order.
Such narratives, perhaps motivated in some cases by analysts’ understandable outrage over the actions of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and a desire to convince the United States to stop supporting it, often downplayed the Houthis’ wartime atrocities across Yemen and their broader threat to the country’s stability.
Some analyses, for example, explain the Houthis’ seizure of Sanaa as a natural consequence of the failure of the political transition process that began in 2011 after Saleh’s ouster. One narrative claims that Houthis took over Sanaa after they rejected, with some justification, a decision by a committee appointed by President Hadi to divide Yemen into six federal regions following the conclusion of the National Dialogue Conference in February 2014.
The proposed new federal arrangement would have left the traditional Houthi territorial base in Saada without access to a seaport or oil resources. Other analyses have highlighted the Houthis’ 2014 campaign against massive corruption under Hadi’s rule, an issue that resonated widely with Yemenis at the time.
But the Houthis’ quest for power runs much deeper.
They have been pushing by force from their stronghold south towards Sanaa since the late 2000s, and more aggressively since 2011. By the time the decision to divide Yemen into six regions was taken, the Houthis had already managed to take control over large swaths of the north, including parts of Amran, Hajja and al-Jawf.
And today, the Houthi-run government in Sanaa is one of the most corrupt Yemen has ever seen, raising serious questions about their claim to have the moral high ground in the conflict.
Another narrative depicts the Houthis as representatives of the Zaydi religious minority who are the victims of six wars that they fought against Saleh in Saada between 2004 and 2010. To be sure, the Saada wars might have contributed to the spread of the Houthi insurgency today. Some of the Houthis fighting in the current war saw their fathers and loved ones brutally killed by Saleh’s forces in the previous decade. But despite this, the Houthis had no problem allying with Saleh in 2014 and with his help, toppled Hadi’s government and dragged the country into a devastating civil war.
The Houthis do not represent all Zaydis in Yemen. Their major enemies, whom they have managed to eliminate since 2014 – including Saleh himself – were all Zaydis. Their insurgency and rise to power over the past three years have been driven far less by the grievances they suffered as a result of the Saada wars than by a long-running power struggle within the northern political elite, including Saleh, who have dominated Yemen’s politics for centuries.
Houthis belong to the Jaroudi sect, an offshoot of the dynamic and diverse Zaydi Islam. While Zaydism encourages scholarship and individual’s freedom of interpretation, Jarudism believes in the strict right of Prophet Mohammed’s descendants to rule. Indeed, the Houthi movement is deeply rooted in the Zaydi imamate that ruled Yemen for hundreds of years until 1962.
The Imams claimed authority to rule by virtue of being descendants of Prophet Mohammed, commonly known as Sayyids. During the imamate, Yemen’s rulers came exclusively from Sayyid families. But not all Sayyids embrace Houthi political aspirations, and Houthis do not represent all Sayyids.
Like many other political Islam movements, the Houthis use Islamic discourse to justify their right to power and legitimacy to rule. Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis are aiming to replace Yemen’s 1962 revolution principles and bring back a system based on Sayyid families’ right to rule.
The Houthis’ public discourse heavily preaches the superiority and right of ahl al-beit (“people of the house,” another term for the Prophet’s descendants), to rule. Al-wathiqah al-fikriyya, or “the ideological document”, which guides the Houthi movement, states the exceptionalism of ahl al-beit over other Muslims and says that descendants of the Prophet will guide the Ummah (nation) and rule over it.
The 1962 revolutionary principles, which include establishing a republican democratic system and ending discrimination and privileges based on class, are embraced by Yemenis, including those who rejected Saleh.
The 1962 revolution ended the imamate and centuries of isolation and political repression that left Yemen one of the poorest and most illiterate countries in the world. Although Yemenis enjoyed a bit more freedom after 1962, the revolution did not succeed in ending the Northern elite’s monopoly over power. Under the leadership of Saleh, who came to power in 1978, elites from his northern Hashid tribe became country’s dominant political and military force, until today.
Many in Yemen think that for the Houthis, this current war is about reclaiming their God-given right to rule that was taken away from the Sayyids in 1962. For many other Yemenis, the war is about fighting for the republican system that ended the Sayyid dynasty’s monopoly over power.
The Houthis' base of support inside Yemen is very narrow, and their political Islamist agenda is rejected by most Yemenis.
Conditions in Yemen today are very different from those in place during the imamate. The imams isolated Yemen from the rest of the world and prohibited modern education so that Yemenis, much like North Koreans today, would remain too ignorant and uninformed to challenge their authority.
Opposition to the return of the imamate drives most Yemenis who are opposed to Houthis and those who are fighting them on the battlefield. Regionally, the imams operated in a much friendlier environment than the Houthis do today.
Saudi Arabia supported the imams’ attempt to reclaim power from the revolutionaries for five years following the 1962 revolution, fighting against Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser who backed the Republicans. Today Yemen is perhaps even more entangled in a regional competition for power, this time between Saudi Arabia and Iran [pdf]. Saudi Arabia says it is committed to defeating the Houthis who they perceive as Iran’s proxy in their backyard.
By killing Saleh, the Houthis lost the political cover that GPC offered them and isolated themselves even more in the region. Also, Saleh’s death seems to have pushed the Saudi-led coalition to resolve some of their differences that delayed the progress of their ground operations and contributed to a military and political stalemate.
A notable development is the meeting between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and leaders of Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood party, in Riyadh on December 12.
Also important was the statement by UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs the following day indicating the UAE would work with Islah to promote regional stability. This signals a major shift, given the UAE’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood position.
Previously, fear of a takeover by the Islamist Islah party (fighting on Hadi’s side) had led the Saudi-led coalition to withhold support from local forces – that have heavy Islah participation – fighting the Houthis in two key areas, Taiz and Baydha.
With this development, we might see an escalated ground offensive to push the Houthis out of these critical areas and possibly into the capital Sanaa in the coming weeks. A day after Islah’s meeting with MBZ, the Houthis were pushed out of Bayhan, one of the most intense front lines that had been locked in a stalemate for years.
The Houthis’ base of support inside Yemen is very narrow, and their political Islamist agenda is rejected by most Yemenis. Without Saleh’s GPC and their relatively wider social and political base as part of their coalition, the Houthis’ goal of ruling Yemen alone by divine right will at least be exposed and apparent to all.
With the Houthis alone in the north, Yemen’s conflict, initially driven by local power dynamics and grievances, is increasingly taking an even more regional and sectarian nature, making it more complex than it already is.
During and beyond the war, Yemen will likely become a battleground for regional actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia and Iran. The regional dynamic of the conflict must be addressed by the international community in order to mitigate the impact of the escalation of violence in Yemen after Saleh’s death.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.