A revolt which had been smouldering in the rugged mountains of northern Yemen for nearly three years has flared up again in the last few weeks. Hundreds of government troops, Zaidi Shi’as and civilians have died in clashes since early January; rebels led by Abd al-Malik al-Huthi have ignored a series of ultimatums that the government issued to the effect that they should disarm and surrender or be “rooted out.” The latest ultimatum was in a letter that Ali Abdallah Saleh, president of Yemen (pic, right), sent on February 17 to the governor of the restive province of Sa’ada, which borders Saudi Arabia: in it he gave the rebels a “last chance” to turn themselves in within two days. On January 29 Saleh had issued an earlier warning to the Zaidi rebels to “hand over their weapons and heavy arms,” otherwise the army would be “blameless” in any action it took against them. “There is a special force ready to uproot them if they do not disband and put down their weapons as soon as possible. This operation would not take long,” Saleh said. “We warn them, and the one who had warned is excused.”
Rebel leaders have been adamant that government forces attacked without provocation, in violation of a truce signed between the government and the rebels of al-Shabab al-Mu’min (“believing youths”) in 2005. The truce had stipulated that Yemeni soldiers should not be allowed into the al-Huthi tribal areas. The rebel leaders said that the recent clashes were sparked when government troops entered their areas. They called for a ceasefire and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the renewed military campaign. Abd al-Malik al-Huthi has been quoted as saying in a telephone interview: “The campaign was launched without cause; we are in the state of self-defence, as we have always been.”
In the course of the recent fighting, the Zaidi rebels issued warnings to local Jews living in the village of al-Salem in northern Yemen. The warnings gave the Jews ten days to leave, otherwise they would be abducted, killed and their property would be looted. According to a threatening letter delivered to Dawood Youssuf Mousa, a local Jewish community leader, on January 10, the local Jews “have been acting to first and foremost serve global Zionism, which seeks to corrupt the people and distance them from their principles, their values, their morals, their religion, and spread all kinds of vice in society.” The letter prompted the small Jewish community in al-Salem to seek refuge in a hotel in Sa’ada City. In an interview with al-Jazeera, Huthi defended the threats made to the local Jewish community. “These Jews have a problem with the other inhabitants of the region, who have complained about them,” he said. “The people have demanded that these Jews leave because they have provoked damage … by their admitted meddling in regional affairs and their moral corruption.”
Sa’ada, some 230 kilometres (about 145 miles) from the capital, Sana’a, has been the stage of two earlier insurrections led by members of the Huthi clan, which the government crushed in less than three years. The first uprising was led by Hussain Badr al-Din al-Huthi, Abd al-Malik’s brother, who staged a three-month insurrection before he was killed in September 2004. However, his followers have continued fighting. A second uprising was led by their father Badr al-Din, a prominent Zaidi ‘alim who is considered to be the spiritual leader of al-Shabab al-Mu’min, in March and April 2005. Hundreds have lost their lives in these sporadic outbreaks of fighting. In a meeting with opposition parties in parliament, Yemen’s national security chief Ali Muhammad al-Ansi said that 727 troops had been killed and 5,296 wounded in clashes with rebels since June 20, 2004. He added that the damage resulting from these clashes is estimated at some US$600 million. No accurate figures are available on rebel casualties, but they are also believed to be very high.
The government has levelled a battery of charges against al-Huthi, including sedition, forming an illegal armed group, engaging in terrorism, inciting anti-American sentiment, and seeking to overthrow the Yemeni republic. This republic was set up after a coup in September 1962 that overthrew an imamat system of government inspired by Zaidi political thought. The government also accuses, in the words of Saleh, “hostile foreign powers” of supporting the rebels. This is an implicit reference to Iran and Libya, the two countries named explicitly by other government officials and pro-government media outlets as providing the rebels with financial and material support. On February 16 Yemen requested the extradition from Libya of Yahia al-Huthi, another son of Badr al-Din who is also a member of parliament. The government claimed that Yahia is wanted “for the major role he has played and continues to play in the sedition alongside his brothers, the late Hussein and Abd al-Malik al-Huthi, and other terrorists.” It also said that measures have been taken to strip Yahia of his parliamentary immunity.
The Huthis do not hide their characteristically Zaidi belief that there are two forms of legitimate government: an imamat ruled by the descendants of the Prophet (saw) through Imam Ali and Sitti Fatimah (ra), or rule by any pious Muslim who institutes justice. In response to a question about his views on democracy, Badr al-Din has been quoted as replying: “We are for justice. We do not know this democracy you speak of.”
By resorting to the all-too-convenient “war on terrorism” excuse and the discredited tactic of scapegoating outsiders, the government is trying to conceal the complexity of a conflict shaped by contending approaches to Zaidi political theory, as well as social, tribal and historical rivalries unique to Yemen. The Huthis do not hide their characteristically Zaidi belief that there are two forms of legitimate government: an imamat ruled by the descendants of the Prophet (saw) through Imam Ali and Sitti Fatimah (ra), or rule by any pious Muslim who institutes justice. In response to a question about his views on democracy, Badr al-Din has been quoted as replying: “We are for justice. We do not know this democracy you speak of.”
Zaidism is an offshoot of Shi‘ism that is dominant in northwestern Yemen. Fighting against corrupt rulers and to establish justice is central to Zaidism, which was formed by the followers of Zaid bin Ali, a grandson of Imam Husain (ra) who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the Umayyad caliph Hisham bin Abd al-Malik in 740 CE. Zaid’s son, Yahya, who fought alongside his father, led another unsuccessful anti-Umayyad rebellion in Khurasan. After he was killed in 125 AH, his body was crucified and remained on the cross until Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, the military commander of the Abbasid revolution, took over Khurasan. Unlike Ithna’-Ashari (Twelver) Shi’as, who accept a specific line of twelve imams descended from Imam Ali and Sitti Fatimah (ra) as the rightful successors to the Prophet (saw), the Zaidis hold that the imamat is open to any of their descendants who establishes himself by fighting against corrupt rulers.
The first Zaidi state was established in Daylaman and Tabaristan (northern Iran) in 864 CE and lasted until the death of its leader, Hasan bin Zaid, a distinguished Zaidi scholar who was descended from Imam Hasan bin Ali bin Abi-Talib, at the hands of the Samanids in 928 CE. Forty years later a second Zaidi state was established in Gilan, northwestern Iran, and survived under rulers from Imam Hasan’s line until the twelfth century. In Yemen a Zaidi state was established in Sa’ada by another descendant of Imam Hasan in the ninth century CE. A succession of Zaidi rulers continued to rule parts of Yemen until 1962, when the last Zaidi imam, Hamid al-Din, was overthrown in a military coup led by Arab nationalist officers. In doctrinal matters Zaidis have incorporated the doctrine of the Mu’tazilah. This is a trend that was started by Imam Zaid himself, who adhered to the teachings of Wasil bin ‘Atta’, the founder of the Mu’tazilah. Zaidi fiqh is strongly influenced by the fiqh of Imam Abu-Hanifa (ra), a fact that, along with their recognition of the validity of the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, Umar al-Farooq and Uthman al-Ghani (ra), facilitates good relations with the country’s predominantly Shafi‘i Sunnis.
Certain trends within Zaidism in Yemen began to be radicalised in the 1980s and 1990s. This coincided with, and was in some ways a reaction to, the growth of rabidly anti-Shi‘a salafism in the country. Many of these salafis were veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad or Yemenis who studied in neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Some salafi elements have been implicated in attacks against Zaidi institutions, and some of their leaders, such as Muqbil al-Wadi’i, have made public their intent to destroy the tombs of Zaidi imams. The reaction of the Zaidis, who constitute approximately 40 percent of Yemen’s population of 20 million, to the rise of Yemeni salafism also included a religious and educational revival, in which numerous Zaidi educational institutions were set up and an abundance of Zaidi manuscripts, books and polemical works have been published.
But the emergence of militant Zaidism over the past two decades has also brought to the fore an internal rift that had long been subsumed. Pent-up frustrations with the quietist leadership of traditional Zaidi authorities boiled over in the early 1990s and led to the establishment of the al-Haq (Right or Truth) Party. Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi was a leading figure in the party and ran successfully on its ticket for a parliamentary seat in 1993. But in 1997 he led a group that broke away from al-Haq Party over disagreements with secretary-general Sayyid Ahmad Muhammad al-Shami, and formed the al-Shabab al-Mu’min movement.
Anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism formed focal points in the activism of the Huthis. Hussein had expressed deep concern aboutAmerica’s expansionist policies in the Middle East and Salih’s pro-American policies. He once described the Yemeni president as “a tyrant … who wants to please America and Israel by sacrificing the blood of his own people.” In 2003, after his return from theSudan, where he worked on a master’s degree in Qur’anic studies, he embarked on an effort to organize anti-US demonstrations and told his followers to chant anti-US and anti-Israel slogans after Friday prayers throughout the country. The government’s reaction was severe, and included the imprisonment of hundreds of his supporters. Yet these repressive measures failed to dissuade Hussein from pursuing his campaign. Tensions boiled over until the first Huthi insurgency began in June 2004, when the government unleashed its military machine against the Shabab fighters entrenched in Sa’ada. Zaidi scholars have been divided over al-Shabab al-Mu’min, with some denouncing the group in public after the first round of fighting in 2004.
Salih’s anti-Zaidi measures intensified after the first Huthi-led uprising and have continued unabated to date. Mass arrests have been carried out throughout the country, especially in the province of Sa’ada and the capital, Sana’a. Those arrested have included not only members of al-Shabab and supporters of Huthi but also Zaidis and Ithna’-Asharis who have expressed opposition to the government’s measures against the Shi‘a communities in Yemen. Many have been detained incomunicado, without charge or trial, and are thought to have been tortured. The government has also decided to shut down 4,000 private religious schools, many of which belonged to the Zaidi community. According to the US state department’s human rights report in the year 2005, publishers have also been “banned from distributing some books that espoused Zaidi-Shi’ite Islamic doctrine” and banned the celebration of al-Ghadeer Day, a holiday celebrated by some Shi‘as.
Because of its past record of violence against the Zaidis, the government’s recent threats to quash the Zaidi rebellion in Sa’ada must be taken seriously. It has already unleashed the full force of its military juggernaut to pound the lightly-armed rebels, and will continue in its dogged pursuit of a military solution. But recent history also shows that the embers of Zaidi rebellion in Yemen will refuse to go away; the repressive measures are reinforcing communal identity and a feeling of distinctiveness among them. This helps give the rebels a larger pool of potential recruits. This may ultimately transform the intermittent episodes of irregular combat between rebels and government troops into a sustained campaign of warfare. This would be unlikely to remain restricted to the mountainous regions of northwestern Yemen, but might well extend to fighting in the rest of the country, including its towns and cities.