The Houthis lightning campaign in Sana‘a has demolished the old regime but what follows next is still not certain.
Following decades of oppression, the Houthis of Yemen have managed against all odds what revolutionaries could not: depose the last remnants of the old regime. On September 21, Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa resigned amid reports that General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, half-brother of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (who ruled Yemen from 1990–2012) and the country’s real strongman had fled to Qatar. With the prime minister and the gerneral out of the way, the salafist al-Islah’s political empire, which was erected when President Saleh was eased out of power through a Saudi-brokered deal in February 2012, has crumbled.
The Houthis now control many state buildings in the capital, Sana‘a. This former rebel group from northern Sa‘ada, born in 1994 in reaction to sectarian-based state repression, has managed since 2011 to reinvent itself as a force of the people for the people. Often described as the standard-bearers of Yemen’s discontented masses, they have carried the demands of all Yemenis against the Saudi-backed coalition government. They have given those who felt they had no voice a platform to express their anger and vent their frustration.
If 2011 came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” September 2014 could be seen as Yemen’s political emancipation. Not surprisingly, there was much consternation in Riyadh that saw the Houthis’ victory as a threat to their already shaky rule in the Kingdom. There were reports of al-Qaeda attacks against Houthis in north Yemen, perhaps engineered by General al-Ahmar to exact revenge for his humiliation.
For the first time in more than three decades, the popular will has overcome state repression. In a country plagued by nepotism and rampant corruption where most people are forced to live in poverty while the elite indulge in rapacious extravagance (like elites in most Muslim countries), such a victory, achieved through popular support stands as testament to the Yemenis’ determination to reclaim control of their political and institutional destiny.
For those who dismissed the people of Yemen on account of their poverty and seemingly helpless situation, September 2014 would stand as a reminder that a segment of the population in southern Arabia has shown more strength and resolve than many cared to give it credit for. Despite the odds, the Yemenis have risen, determined not to allow their rulers to shackle or silence them in perpetuity.
On September 21, when President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi announced on state television that he had finally brokered an agreement with the Houthis, Yemenis understood that the coalition government had simply capitulated before Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. This group from the north was established in 1994 by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (older brother of Abdel-Malik) who was killed by Yemeni forces in September 1994. The Houthis have traditionally been considered the underdogs of Yemeni politics since the Zaidi Imams’ 1000-year rule in North Yemen was overthrown in a coup in 1962. The Houthis managed through sheer steadfastness in the face of military and political oppression to topple those that were hitherto considered unbeatable: the Saudi-backed and financed Islahis.
The political kraken of Yemen, al-Islah, has held the impoverished country and its people in the palm of its radical hand since 1994, when Saudi Arabia chose to back Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Hussain al-Ahmar to create a buffer against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. If Saleh appeared the undisputed ruler of Yemen, al-Islah, an umbrella group of several political sub-groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, dug its claws deep into the political system, slowly carving a state within the state. By the time Yemen’s first revolutionary wave erupted, the country was ruled, quite literally by two houses: Saleh and al-Ahmar.
It was actually under al-Ahmar’s impetus that the Yemenis dared to rise against President Saleh, calling for his resignation rather than political reforms, as they had initially demanded. In hindsight it has become clear that al-Islah’s support of Yemeni “Arab Spring” was merely a ploy to seize total control of state institutions and reduce Yemen into a republican farce.
Having tasted the bitter fruit of salafi rule, the Houthis whose hopes were aroused by the 2011 uprising, quickly understood that if Yemen was ever to be liberated from the Islahis’ narrow and oppressive interpretations of Islam, they would have to be challenged. Serious effort was required to dismantle their powerhouse. Thus began the Houthis’ march toward Sana‘a.
As Abdel-Malek al-Houthi challenged al-Islah, calling on President Hadi to fulfil his duty toward the nation by implementing popular rule instead of indulging the House of al-Ahmar, fault-lines began to appear, exposing the extent of Yemen’s fragmentation along tribal and clan lines.
The Houthis exposed the house of cards that Yemen’s political structure was, erected on shaky foundations. As Abdel-Malek al-Houthi asked questions for which he got no answers, the politicians’ power games and manipulations were exposed, bringing into focus state lies, betrayals and deceits.
While the Houthis gained in popularity, trailing through Yemeni highlands, they pushed further south against al-Ahmar tribes and military patsies. They achieved strategic victories against the very men who had sought for several decades to enslave them on account of their religious belief — the Zaidi Shi‘is that have long been demonized in Yemen, in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy to conjure up fears of Islamic Iran in order to undermine its influence. The Yemenis, however, began to see the Zaidis in a new light once they came in contact with them.
Over the past several months, the Houthis have become a catalyst for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis. They have come to embody the very change people had been yearning for. One only has to look at the sea of protesters who week after week answered Abdel-Malek al-Houthi’s call for mobilization in the capital Sana‘a to see proof of the new reality.
The Houthis’ strength, their very axis, lay in their denunciation of Yemen’s deep state and their fierce determination to see officials and civil servants held accountable before the people.
Months of tension and bitter battles have finally ended. The Yemenis’ fears had escalated when Sana‘a became the venue for an unprecedented violent military confrontation between the Houthis and Islahi militants mercilessly pounding each other in heavily populated residential areas. Fighting has now ended and calm has been restored.
The truce that officials have been keen to sell to the people as an agreement and not an admission of defeat at the hands of the Houthis and indeed of all Yemenis, signals the end of al-Islah’s supremacy in Yemeni politics. As al-Ahmar clan is coming to terms with its defeat, Islahi militants are scrambling to save their faction, acutely aware that their hold on power has diminished, stripped away by the one group they thought could never challenge their might and clout.
But if the corridors of power are abuzz with rumours and whispers as officials attempt to make sense of this new political reality waiting on Abdel-Malek al-Houthi to make his next move, the people have welcomed the Houthis’ arrival in Sana‘a with guarded optimism.
There is still palpable fear in Sana‘a but residents are gradually abandoning the prejudices that were instilled in them against the Houthis. When they were told that if successful, the Houthis would indulge in looting, plunder and destruction in the manner of the Saudi-backed takfiris elsewhere in the region (Syria and Iraq), it naturally spread fear. The residents of Sana‘a have discovered, to their surprise, that order has been restored to the streets almost instantly. People were told that Abdel-Malek al-Houthi would seize power and depose President Hadi. Instead, they have seen that he has fulfilled his promise of non-interference in the political process.
For the first time in Yemen’s history, the victor has not come to claim his prize instantly as is the wont of so many politicians, generals and other assorted opportunists that masquerade as leaders in the Muslim East. Instead, he has chosen to defer to the wishes of the people giving them the choice to choose freely. Such political selflessness must be applauded.
Three years after Yemen began its long march to political emancipation, a once fragmented people have become united, ready to turn the page on its troubled past.
One question, however, remains: will Yemenis be allowed to shape their own future or will foreign powers — Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel, among others — interfere in their struggle for emancipation? While mired in poverty, Yemen is too important strategically to be left alone. How Abdel Malik al-Houthi and the people of Yemen handle this challenge will ultimately determine the country’s future.