It seems that a narrative that mimics classical war novels is being drafted in Sana’a these days. There are tents scattered along the long airport road. Thousands have amassed at the entrances and exits of the city and in front of the ministerial institutions (many of them carrying weapons, in a nod to Yemeni tradition). There are anti- and pro-government slogans on the roads and alleys. All this raises the question: Who will fight and who will give up?
The messages of warnings and menace that have escalated lately in Sana’a from different sides - whether formal leaders or informal political figures - reflect the failure of the current government to uphold the country’s sovereignty. While President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi warns the Al Houthis of the consequences of their role as the guardian of the people, the leader of the Al Houthis, Abdul Malek Al Houthi, sends warnings to the Yemeni regime that contain a threat of a third escalatory phase that will follow the two phases of demonstrations and camping in Sana’a if the government fails to agree to the demands of the group, especially the annulment of the decision to lift subsidies on oil products, reviewing the division of the regions and the implementation of the outcome of the National Dialogue. The exploitation of the public from each side, and the use of the people as a political tool to defend and attack at the same time, sends negative signals that contribute to the drawing of a gloomy portrait of Yemen.
The current leader of the Al Houthi movement has outlined the ideology of the group in the intellectual and cultural document they issued in 2012, after the agreement between them and some scholars of the Zaidi sect. The agreement was on the approach that ‘Ahl Al Bait’ (the descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, PBUH) are more worthy than the others when it comes to the Imama and rule of the state. The adoption of the religious approach of the Zaidi Imams Al Hadi and Al Qasim may indicate that the Al Houthis have tried to reconcile their religious orientation, which tends towards Al Itna Asharia (the ‘Twelver Shiite Imams’), with the Zaidi sect providing them with political support from the Zaidi tribes. And also giving religious legitimacy to their political demands.
Going slightly deeper into the history of the movement and its political and religious goals leads us to the main character of the group - Hussain Badr Al Deen Bin Ameer Al Deen Bin Al Hussain Al Houthi, who is considered by Yemen observers as the real founder of the movement and the inspiration behind its political orientation during his lifetime and even after his death. He left behind his views in lectures titled ‘Quranic culture’, which confirmed the group’s hostility towards America and Israel.
He considered Yemenis - whether in the army, the security services or the government - as brothers of the Al Houthis. But they would be worse than the US and Israel if they decide to fight the Al Houthis instead of the Americans and Israelis. Such a move, according to him, would transform them into enemies and killing them would then be construed as ‘halal’!
Under the slogan ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, and victory to Islam’, Iran’s clerics and the leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq and Ansar Allah in Yemen find common ground.
And that may have led to accusations against the Al Houthis of receiving financial and military support from Iran, whether directly or indirectly, with weapons smuggled through the ports of Midi in Haja and Al Lehia in Hodeidah and across the Gulf of Aden.
The relationship between Iran and the Al Houthis, whether religious, political or at the military level, may push countries like Saudi Arabia to adopt defensive measures to counter the potential Iranian threat. Saudi Arabia has actually embarked upon the defensive procedures after the military confrontation with the Al Houthis in 2009, and these actions transformed into protective measures after the revolution of 2011 in Yemen, when Riyadh decided to adopt diplomatic channels to deal with the Al Houthis.
At the end of 2013, it was rumoured that a meeting took place between Saleh Al Hebrah, head of the political council of the Ansar Allah, and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, in addition to statements of the official spokesman of the Al Houthis that the Saudi ambassador met Al Houthi leaders in Yemen. But Saudi Arabia’s June 2014 branding of the Al Houthis as a terrorist movement may refute these rumours or may indicate that the confidential talks were not successful.
Before 2011, Yemen was socially and politically ripe for revolution against the ruler, whether in the south or the north. But the insurgency in Sa’ada was growing even before the reunification in 1990 and its main principle was to ‘oppose the unjust ruler’ and its first seeds may have been planted during the period that followed the exit of the Zaidi Imamate in Sana’a.
The first military confrontation between the auth-orities and the Al Houthi movement in 2004, which led to the death of the movement’s leader Hussain Al Houthi, confirmed that there was no going back on the road chosen by the Al Houthis in resisting authority until they manage to retrieve their religious and political rights. Now, the Al Houthis are no longer a political movement associated with a particular group that has its own geographical, religious, social and political characteristics, but have been transformed after the revolution of 2011 into a political opposition that also includes non-Al Houthis, inside and outside Sana’a.
This has led to tribal and political divisions within Yemeni society between supporters and opponents of the movement. The Yemeni government had contributed in planting those differences through its confrontation with the movement and the founding of the People’s Army in July 2008, which consisted of 27,000 fighters, to get rid of the Al Houthis. And this has gotten deeper after the Damaj and Kataf crisis - the centre of Salafism in the north - and turned into a confrontation between Al Houthis and their supporters and the Salafist tribes.
The success of the Al Houthis in gaining control over the province of Amran confirms that they have control even over army brigades, which raises many questions about the presence of pro-Al Houthi elements within the army. The movement has managed to succeed through tactics adopted by the Ansar Allah in buying the loyalties of some military and tribal commanders in addition to buying land at double its real price in the Yemeni provinces. This led to their battles with the authorities, such as those in Al Jawf and Amran, enabling them to control many of the strategic sites, as happened in Sa’ada, Kataf, Damaj or Amran. This also guaranteed the loyalty of the tribes opposed to ‘Bait Al Ahmar’ and fuelled opposition to the ruling regime. This enabled the Al Houthis to secure a position of nuetrality with the authorities.
Implicit political consensus
There are also many signs that the movement is not reluctant to play the sectarian card, in an attempt to attract the loyalty and support of groups and individuals subscribing to the Zaidi doctrine, who make up more than 48 per cent of Yemenis in the provinces of Sana’a, Amran, Al Jawf, Sa’ada and Dhamar. The objective of the Al Houthi movement is certainly political, but it is not primarily aimed at the seizure of Sana’a. The military arm of the Al Houthis indicates that they are trying to be stationed in governorates close to their current central positions. They seek to secure outlets on land and in sea, so that Sana’a becomes accessible and will not consume them militarily.
The spread of Al Houthis in the northern provinces may give them the ability to open doors with the south across Hadramaut, especially in light of the implicit political consensus with Hirak, the political movement demanding the secession of the south. There are also political goals for Al Houthis which are undeclared, like developing channels with the Shiite Ismailis in Najran and Jizan provinces of Saudi Arabia despite the historical and ideological differences between the two groups. The aim of the Al Houthis is to secure rear bases across Saudi Arabia, which they see as their arch enemy.
If the Al Houthis succeeded in seizing power in Sana’a, what lies in store for Yemen? There is ambiguity surrounding their political intentions in case of the aforesaid happening or even if they participate in government. To predict the future scenario is not easy, especially since the political agenda of the Al Houthis is not clear. But the last speech by Abdul Malek Al Houthi confirms that the group supports the continuation of the republican system and wants to open the door to public participation.
A close observation of the internal dynamics of the movement itself raises doubts about its ability to become a widely popular political opposition in Yemen, since the Al Houthi leadership has become the preserve of the descendants of Badr Al Deen Al Houthi, which may weaken the backing for the movement in the long term, especially from non-Al Houthi tribes.
And the appointment of tribal leaders loyal to the Al Houthis only as field leaders may raise the ire of the tribes over time, and split them from the Al Houthis. In addition, the movement’s relationship with other parties in Yemen - whether political parties or the tribal opposition - may be damaged in the future, if the Al Houthis decide to specify their political demands in a narrow way.
The latest developments between the Al Houthis and the government in Yemen represents a kind of gradual surrender from the government side, after it took a high-level delegation to the Al Houthi’s centre of power in Sa’ada to negotiate with them, and not vice versa. However, the failure of the negotiations between the two sides confirms that the Al Houthis gained points in the first round. But there are going to be more rounds and the winner could be the one that will score more points in the final round. –Gulf News