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[Dehai-WN] Foreignpolicy.com: Yemen's Houthi movement and the revolution

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Tue, 28 Feb 2012 14:27:24 +0100

 
<http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/27/yemen_s_houthi_movement_a
nd_the_revolution> Yemen’s Houthi movement and the revolution


Posted By Madeleine Wells
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/images/091022_meta_block.gifMonday, February
27, 2012 - 1:15 PM http://www.foreignpolicy.com/images/091022_meta_block.gif



http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/files/houthis.jpg

Walking last month into the Shabaab al-Sumud tent in Yemen's Maydan Taghayr
-- Change Square -- I was greeted by eager faces and talkative qat chewers.
"We love Americans," a Houthi supporter nodded his head vigorously, and, in
doing so, revealed an enormous poster on the tent flap behind him on which
the group's infamous slogan was inscribed: "God is Great, Death to America,
Death to Israel, a curse on the Jews." Seeing my eyes widen, he offered, "We
hate American policies, not people. The roots of the slogan lie in America's
war on the Iraqi people and support for Israeli policies against the
Palestinians. Let me tell you what it is that the Houthis want..."

Even the dedicated observer of Yemeni affairs can be forgiven for not fully
grasping the complexity of the country's political milieu during this shaky
revolutionary period. Researching Yemeni politics, one often feels stuck in
an intractable game of telephone. Part of this is the grammar of how
information spreads in the Middle East, which is often informal and
decentralized. But part of it can be related to the political ecology of the
country and the palpable gap between the geographical center and periphery.
The history of the political evolution of the Shiite "Houthi" rebels of
Saada province is no different. Unraveling what the Houthis want may
indicate how other independent and marginalized groups, like the southern
separatists, will navigate a post-Saleh Yemen. The political integration of
the Houthis is one among the myriad problems faced by newly minted President
Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, who underwent his official installation ceremony
today in Sanaa. An assessment of Houthi interests also suggests a larger
difference than we realize between the opposition movements in cities like
Sanaa, Taiz, and Aden, and the supporters they claim to represent in rural
areas.

Even before the mass protest movement calling for Ali Abdullah Saleh's
immediate ouster began heating up last spring -- long before dozens of
provincial officers quit their post or before there were battles between
security forces and protesters from the Saudi Arabian border to Aden --
Yemen's central government exercised very limited control over vast swaths
of Yemeni territory. In many provinces, the Yemeni army has occupied little
more than walled military garrisons, and officers often had to ask
permission from local sheikhs before embarking on missions. However, Saleh's
regime has regularly attempted to brutally impose authority over many of
these regions. One area in which this strategy backfired is the northwest
most
<http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/27/yemen_s_state_within_a_fai
led_state?page=0,2#0> province of Saada -- a rugged region in northern Yemen
along the Saudi border. Starting in 2004, the war between Yemen's central
government and the rebels, called "Houthis" after their assassinated leader,
has displaced upwards of 300,000 people, destroyed Zaidi religious sites,
and disrupted age-old systems of tribal conflict mediation. The on again off
again conflict has spilled over into Hajjah, Amran, and al-Jawf provinces,
and even incited a brief Saudi air campaign in 2009. Throughout the war,
Saleh's regime
<http://www.hrw.org/reports/2008/10/24/disappearances-and-arbitrary-arrests-
armed-conflict-huthi-rebels-yemen> arrested and forcibly disappeared people
from Yemen's northern provinces and Sanaa thought to be connected to the
Houthis, clogging the judiciary system and the jails with hundreds of
prisoners related to this conflict.

As my co-authors and I <http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG962.html>
argued in a 2010 RAND report, the violence in the north damaged "entire
communities and local economies... [causing] first-order effects in the
realm of human security and possible negative consequences for the
resilience of cultural norms that might, in other cases, diminish conflict."


Saleh rallied support for the war first by casting the Houthis as
proto-Hezbollah foot soldiers for Iran -- a spurious claim dismissing that
Houthis are Zaidis and follow a doctrine quite different from Iranians and
Lebanese Shiites -- and then by painting them as separatists and terrorists.
Despite the Houthis' rather unsavory slogan, their early stated goals
included regional autonomy, not separatism, and freedom of religious Shiite
education, which made them the enemy of radical Sunni Salafis and al Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While those worried about Houthi
secessionism have pointed to their long-standing and recently renewed links
with the southern secessionist Hirak movement, the Houthis describe
themselves as independents in a rapidly changing political process, not
secessionists. There are still basic military garrisons and border guards in
Houthi-controlled areas in the north, but the Houthis are at peace with
these forces. If they wanted to secede, the argument goes, they would have
expelled the remaining forces last year. Indeed, after the protest movement
began last February, Saleh withdrew his fighting garrisons from the region
in order to concentrate on his tough luck in Sanaa. Seeing an opportunity
amidst the chaos, the movement's charismatic leader, Abdalmalik al-Houthi,
immediately sent unarmed Houthi supporters down to Sanaa to participate in
the revolution.

On the one hand, city-dwelling, college-educated twenty and
thirty-somethings sit in several pro-Houthi tents at Taghayr 24/7, watching
generator-powered al-Arabiya, and waxing rhapsodic about democracy,
equality, and justice. A few of these youths have been arrested for
supporting the Houthis, and some have even visited Saada. But for the most
part, the pro-Houthi Shabab al-Sumud (literally "Steadfast Youth") tent is
frequented by Zaidi youth from urban areas like Taiz and Sanaa who have
limited to no experience with actual war. For them, the movement appeals to
a sense of social justice; it offers one among many new outlets to express
disenchantment with the regime's repressive apparatus.

When asked about the Houthi's goals in the revolution, Shabab al-Sumud youth
leader Ali al-Imad emphasized that the group is inherently religious, not
political, with Zaidi revivalist roots. Indeed, the Houthi movement stems
partly from a reaction to increasing Salafi presence in historically
Zaidi-controlled Saada in the 1980s. At the same time, Imad pointed to the
importance of the group's political front. Houthis believe that "Islam and
politics are fundamentally compatible," and hope to get involved officially
in Yemeni political life, that is, if they feel that political progress
reflects the spirit of the revolution as "democratic and free." In this
vein, they were among the first to boycott the Saudi-penned, United
States-backed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement for Yemen because as
Imad put it: "We are anti-oppression, for freedom of expression, and against
American invasions and foreign influence. The GCC agreement is none of
these."

Beyond the southern movement, the Houthis in Change Square have formed a
number of coalitions with parties of diverse political bends. In early
January they joined in a coalition with the Baath party and the Union of
Popular Forces (a Zaidi party) against al Islah Islamist party; they have
had links with the Socialists (Hizb al-Ishtiraki) for the past several
years; and they allegedly held talks with the Joint Meeting Parties last
month. A fuss was recently made about al-Houthi's letter of support for the
newly formed Zaidi ‘Ulema-led party, al-Ummah. But al-Houthi and Imad have
made it quite clear that this party does not represent them either. All of
these alliances are tactical, suggested Imad, and when the Houthis are ready
to participate in politics, they will create their own party.

Much of this information tracks with press office releases and speeches by
Al-Houthi. Al-Houthi
<http://www.yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx?ID=3&SubID=4732> met with
officials from the European Community this month and
<http://www.aljazeera.net/NR/EXERES/CB6CC7A0-C5EF-49CA-8628-B19309761E0B.htm
> promised U.N. envoy Jamal Bin Omar in December that his supporters would
indeed form a political party and participate in the forthcoming national
reconciliation dialogue. During a packed February 3 celebration of the
prophet's birthday (Mawlid al-Nabuwi) -- a holiday repressed by Saleh during
his war on the North -- al-Houthi
<http://yemenpost.net/Detail123456789.aspx%3FID=3%26SubID=4654%26MainCat=3>
called for the creation of a civil state in Yemen. Al-Houthi's media outfit,
Ansar Allah (Supporters of Allah), also released several key conciliatory
statements, on their willingness to accept Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar's apology for
the Saada wars and
<http://www.ansaruallah.net/ar/index.php/news/34-ansaruallah-news/623-????-?
??-????-??????-??-??????-???????-????????-????????-?????-??????-?????-?????-
????.html> suggesting that despite Houthi opposition to the election,
polling centers in Sadaa were operational and the rights of voters would be
protected.

On the other hand, there remain troubling indicators in and around Saada
suggesting the Houthis are neither so moderate nor so democratically
inclined. Despite some rhetorical support for the country's political
transformation, their rather vehement boycotting of the GCC process --
including last Tuesday's referendum -- their increasingly hard-handed style
of rule in the north, and smoldering sectarian violence sets them apart from
other opposition groups.

First, Houthi reticence until now to meaningfully engage in political life
through the elections and forming a party suggests they remain uncertain
about their political motives. The Houthis and other independents are right
in emphasizing that last Tuesday's uncompetitive, one-candidate elections
were merely procedural. What will be significant is a change in
institutions, including military restructuring, judicial and constitutional
reforms that give the state autonomy from previous factions within it. Yet,
despite al-Houthi's statement that the group would not prevent the voting
process, reporting suggests only one polling station was open in Saada last
Tuesday, and voters in the area were allowed to forgo dipping their fingers
in ink for fear of Houthi retribution. A massive march held in Saada city to
boycott the elections, and
<http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=40585> reports of Houthis
storming Islah party headquarters to tear up Hadi campaign posters and
replace them with posters about boycotting the election, is evidence of
voter intimidation and the silencing of non-Houthi supporters.

Further, Houthi supporters have yet to form a political party and step
beyond the merely tactical alliances in Change Square. Indeed, given the
patterns of patrimonialism in Yemeni politics, links to the central
government are perhaps the only way to bring the requisite reconstruction
money to the devastated northwest. As a contact in Sanaa whose brother
fought with the Houthis asked, "What do they want out of the revolution, if
not political parties?"

Second, while the relative security, electricity, and increased social
services are a step up from a near decade of battles with the government,
anecdotes suggest that Saada today is being run with an iron fist. For
example, the strategic city of Dahyan, commonly referred to as the "Zaidi
Najaf" for its historical religious importance, has a 6 p.m. curfew for
women, and non-Zaidis are not allowed to live in the city. An interviewee
whose family is from Dahyan noted that the Houthi "Death to America, Death
to Israel" slogan is sung at every prayer by men who pump their right fists
in the air like Hezbollah. Anti-American rhetoric remains pervasive in Huthi
statements. In past few weeks, the Houthis have started an online campaign
to expel the U.S. ambassador from Yemen, and further internationalized their
propaganda by supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and publically
condemning the burning of Qurans by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. While the
northwest has always been extremely conservative and wary of outside
interference, it is unclear how such Zaidi fundamentalism and xenophobic
rhetoric can be conducive to integration into a larger Yemeni democratic
process.

Finally, while al-Houthi consistently argues that the group has no political
goals and is only temporarily controlling the northwestern provinces until a
more appropriate figure can assume control -- U.S. Ambassador to Yemen
Gerald Feierstein recently
<http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/20/us-yemen-iran-idUSTRE81J0LF201202
20> expressed concern "about conflicts between Houthis and others in the
north and a fairly aggressive effort on their part to expand their territory
and their control." Fear of Houthi encroachment upon pockets where residents
do not support them has recently led to spats between Salafi Sunnis at the
Damaj madrasa in Saada, with hundreds dead from both sides since last fall.
Sectarian fighting between pro and anti-Houthi tribes last month spread to
the province of Hajja and displaced an estimated 2,000 people, adding to the
nearly 200,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) there from previous
rounds of fighting. The sectarian nature of these conflicts threatens to
evolve into a proxy war in a way that the previous battles between the
Houthis and the government of Yemen did not. The immense scale of online
propaganda about the conflict suggests increased Saudi interest and thus
Sunni internationalization of what used to be a highly localized conflict.
On the Shiite side, recent reports about an
<http://marebpress.net/news_details.php?sid=40585> intercepted Iranian ship
carrying mortars and weapons for Houthi re-supply have lead to new
speculation about Iranian exploitation of the conflict. The ratcheting up of
rhetoric about Iranian links to the Houthis -- essentially depicting them as
foreign -- without hard evidence is an impediment to Houthi political
integration and that should be avoided.

Ultimately, despite so much speculation about what the Houthis want, it is
not clear they actually know. Those sympathetic to the Houthis have argued
that the revolution has changed them -- it has encouraged the once defensive
movement to put down its arms, begin to articulate its goals, and come to
terms with a political process -- however slowly it is progressing. This may
have serious benefits for them in the future, including autonomy, lasting
security, and much-needed reconstruction. According to their detractors,
however, we should look to fighting on the ground in Saada and Hajjah, as
well as Houthi reticence to take part in the mainstream operations of the
changing political scene, as evidence of the group's nefarious modus
operandi. Perhaps neither extreme is the case. In the wake of humanitarian
crisis, sectarian tension, and persistent paranoia about Saudi and U.S.
intervention, Sadans are more likely simply trying to rebuild their
communities, and redefine themselves and their place in the Yemeni state,
and vis--vis the international community. This contrast between the context
of the center and the periphery may explain some of the disconnect between
Houthi rhetoric and Houthi action. Indeed, while the youth movement preaches
unity, democracy, and peace, Abdalmalik al-Houthi has thus far proven
non-committal to the institutional paths needed to achieve these things.

Madeleine Wells is a PhD student at George Washington University.

 






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