What it Means to be a Houthi

[escenic_image id="557846"]

Tell me how this ends?

On January 17, 2002 a mass of Houssein Al-Houthi’s followers stood outside the  Great Mosque in Sana chanting “Allah Akbar, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” The “cry”, as it came to be known, was really an  “outcry in the face of arrogance” according to Houssein Al-Houthi, the leader of the rebel movement at the time. Having given a lecture to followers earlier that day on the perils of American tyranny, and the disgrace from which the Arab and Islamic peoples suffer, Al-Houthi urged his followers to present his message in the capital at the Mosque where the President of Yemen could be found that day.

The conflict taking place today in Yemen between the government and rebel forces, known as the “Houthis,” has many causes, but the origin of the modern conflict begins outside the Great Mosque in the country’s capital. Since 2004, five rounds of fighting between the government and the Houthis have created over 160.000 internally displaced people in the country. Numbers that large cannot express the humanitarian impact that they represent for a country where already 15% of the population lives under one dollar a day. Naturally, those caught between the fighting ask themselves how could this possibly end? The government led by President Saleh has given an answer: Operation Scorched Earth.

The ominous title of the latest campaign between the rebels and the government is illustrative of how much the conflict has marred the stability of a country that has been historically recognized for its peacefulness, for its ability to bring together difference, for cross-sectarian harmony in a region that is generally weakened by such demographic configurations. These traits have earned the country the title of “The Happy Yemen.” Yet today, socio-political and religious tensions have undermined the title that Yemenis are so proud of. 

While the conflict in Saada has not received much international attention, other than its framing by the Yemeni government as yet another safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups, the conflict is in fact quite significant for its potential impact on Yemen, and the region more generally. The conflict is a reflection of not only the internal tensions that have been building up in Yemen over religious, socio-economic, and political strains. Rather, the conflict also represents the greater geopolitical and historic context that has developed around and within Yemen.

Consequently, understanding who the Houthis are, how they came to be and what they are fighting for is essential for understanding how Yemen is gradually becoming unhappy. The short answer to this question is that the Houthis are Zaydis, the most moderate of the Shia groups and closest to Sunni Islam. But more than that, the Houthis are a revivalist Zaydi group who believe that the Zaydi identity is threatened by the Sunni or Salafi identity. This sense of threat experienced by the Houthis is grounded in their historical role as leaders in Yemen. The Houthis are also Zaydi Hashemites, who ruled over Yemen for 1,000 years before the country’s revolution in 1962. This revolution marked the end of the Northern Yemeni Imamate and the beginning of the economic and political demise of the Zaydis  which opened the window for the development of factors that have instigated the current conflict in Saada.

The Flower and the Rock

Yemen comprises an old religious mosaic which includes Muslims, Christians and Jews. However, the majority of Yemen’s residents are Muslims who belong to two doctrines, Sunni Islam or Zaydi Shi’a. Though the Sunni Muslims of Yemen are the majority, which totals approximately 60 percent of Yemen’s population of 22 million, they are not the sole holders of authority in Yemen. Ali Abdallah Saleh, the President of Yemen since 1978, is Zaydi by origin. Yet, the current conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government makes the question of Yemen’s religious makeup interesting, particularly since the Houthis are Zaydis by origin. To distinguish the Zaydis from the Houthis it is important to stress that not all Zaydis are Houthis.

Zaydism is a religious strand of Shi’ism; it is different from the mainstream Shii’a Twelfth imamate doctrine which mainly resides in Iran. However, modern political conditions in Yemen created divisions among the Zaydi community and made some of the Houthis closer to the Shi’a of Iran than the Zaydis were originally. The political ambitions of Houssein Al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi movement in Yemen, coincided with the interests of Iran in the region. Increasingly, Houssein Al-Houthi became closer to the Shi’a of Iran than to the original Zaydism, which theologically is close to Sunni Islam. Some literature on the Zaydis and Houthis in Yemen refer to him and his followers as belonging to the Twelfth Imam’s strand of Shi’ism. Here in lies the presence of what author Adel AlAhmadi refers to as the “ Flower and the Rock” in Yemen’s religious configuration. The rock, or the hardliners are the Houthis of Yemen who have shifted their religious alliances and positions to befit their political interests which coincide with Iran. The other Zaydis, the Flower, who are not Houthis, have remained allied with the government of Yemen and condemned the Houthis as a group of heretics who resourced the interests of Yemen to outside powers in return for political vetting. The conflict in Yemen today, is founded mainly in the differences that exist between the Flower and the Rock of the Zaydi tradition.

The Believing Youth

The notion of the Flower and the Rock highlights that despite it’s religious under current, the conflict in Yemen is grounded on a political struggle for power as well. When the 1962 revolution ended the Northern Imamate, it was accompanied by an alteration in the social order that had dominated Yemen in the past. Since then, the region inhabited by the Zaydis has undergone systematic political and economic marginalization. Various analyses of the conflict relate this to the fact that while the end of the Imamate saw the rise of republicans to power as well as growing consensual identity between the two largest religious sects – Zaydi Shiism and Shafei Sunnism – there continued to be exceptions. The most important of which was the emergence of Salafis, who maintained ties to Saudi Arabia, and marginalized Zaydis in Yemen for their alleged links to Jaafarism (the dominant Shiite sect in Iran and Iraq). Consequently, Zaydi revivalists, particularly the Houthis, have been mobilized by the rejection of Salafi influence in Yemen. More importantly, it has led the Houthis to perceive the republic as fundamentally anti-Hashemite and anti-Zaydi.

However, to understand the Houthis’ commitment to their rebel cause, one must first delineate the role that Houssien Al-Houthi had in creating this militarized group. Houssein Al-Houthi is in many ways at the source for understanding the current conflict taking place in Yemen. Al-Houthi was a parliament member in Yemen prior to the separatist movement that broke out in the country in 1994. Up until that time, Houssien Al-Houthi had been a member of the Al-Haqq party – a sectarian party established by the Zaydi people. This party had created for the Zaydis an important means of political expression. However, during the separatist movement, the Al-Haqq party supported the Yemeni Socialist Party against the General People’s Congress, the current party in power led by President Saleh. This created problems for the Al-Haqq party, which motivated Houssein al-Houthi to flee to Syria and Iran. After his return he resigned from the Al-Haqq party and, in 1997, created the Believing Youth, a group seeking to revive Zaydi activism through education and proselytizing.

At this point, Houssein Al-Houthi’s importance multiplied. He was able to create a following of idealists, who gradually turned the group into a type of crusade. The Houthis then founded the group on a platform grounded in anti-US, anti-Israeli, and at times anti-Jewish ideas. However, the actual demands of their agenda remain vague. What is known about the Houthis is that the arrest of Houssein Al-Houthi was called for by the government for instigating people not to pay the zakat; for breaking into mosques; and for promoting ideas that undermined the government.

These factors led to calls for his arrest in 2004, and ultimately attempts at arresting Al-Houthi became full-scale confrontations between the government and his followers. The first conflict in Saada resulted in his death, although not in the death of his legacy in Yemen’s conflict. The government was highly criticized for how it handled the conflict, leading to growing support in favour of the rebels. By the fourth confrontation support for the rebel movement has evolved. Today, very few supporters are genuinely in favour of the slogan that has been as close as the Houthis have gone to identifying an agenda. In addition, the participants in the fighting are no longer a homogenous group. They do not carry a specific ideology. Instead, the battle has extended to other members of the tribal community. People who had never heard of Houssein Al-Houthi are participating in the fighting.

Attack and Defense

In 1994, Houssein Al-Houthi fled to Syria and then Iran. In Iran Houssein experienced the Iranian economic system and the ideological formation which sustains the Islamic Republic firsthand. Upon his return to Yemen, he deserted the Al-Haqq party because it no longer appealed to him for its lack of enthusiasm to challenge the Yemeni government. The Al-Haqq party was no longer, if ever, radical enough in its opposition. Consequently, in 1997 Houssein Al-Houthi founded the “Believing Youth Party,” or ‘Shabab al-mu’mineen’. The formation of the new party took ideological cues from the Iranian revolution. It organised summer camps where children received ideological and revolutionary education, exhorting people against the Yemeni state and depicting America and Israel and other Arab regimes in the area as enemies of Islam.

In the style of Hizbollah, Al-Houthi and his followers collected Zakat and founded charities, creating in effect what amounts to state-within-state institutions inside Yemen so that, in time, the Houthis might be able to challenge the Yemeni government and impose their political ideology consequently gaining more power in Yemen. Houssein wanted to create a self-sufficient economic system which will sustain his followers and force the Yemeni government to surrender to the Houthis’ demands. The impact of these measures were particularly important because of the lack of development in Yemen. In a country where only 55% of the population is literate, and where 20% of the population dies before reaching the age of 40, these measures implied a noticeable improvement in their standard of living. It was in this way that Al-Houthi and his movement grew increasingly powerful.

It was not only economic assistance by Houssein to the Houthis that increased the support for him, but also the charismatic character of Houssein himself, who gave revolutionary sermons in the mosques. In these sermons, Houssein portrayed the Yemeni government as subservient to America and Israel and highlighted the example of the Lebanese movement Hizbollah. It was through his comparison to theses actors that an important aspect of the conflict developed-  its relations to movements and influence from neighbouring states.

A Dance with Ayatollahs

The Yemeni conflict, and thus the true meaning of what being a Houthi entails, is complicated yet again by the ties the rebels and the government have with other countries in the region. The government accuses the rebels of being allied to Iran as well as the Lebanese Hizbollah. On the other hand, the Houthi leaders denounce the government’s close ties to the U.S., as well as Saudi interferences through the funding of the government and of local tribes.

In other words, the conflict in Yemen is also being presented by the parties involved in the fighting as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war. Although concrete claims of foreign involvement in the conflict are difficult to prove, it is true that the region has been significantly affected by the competitive relationship between Riyadh and Tehran, especially during the Iran-Iraq war.

If history is known for repeating itself, then the tense relationship between the Iran and Saudi Arabia could be worsened by Iranian ascendancy in the region, particularly through its influence in Palestine and Lebanon. The same could be said of the impact of alleged Shiite irredentism in Saudi Arabia. Because the war in Yemen has a sectarian dimension to it, there has been an opportunity for conflicting interest between outside players to develop throughout the course of the war. But to what extent is this group truly allied with Iran?

The historical roots of the conflict are deeply connected to the ideological void that the Zaydis felt following the fall of the last Imamate. With the absence of an Imam, scholars had to compensate for this loss and in some way manage to revive their legitimacy. This task became easier with the outcome of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran which provided Shiites throughout the Muslim world with an alternative model of government. It is true that the Houthis’ original leader, Houssein al-Houthi, travelled to Iran during his exile, and was significantly influenced by the teachings of Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, the claims that he was a follower of Khomeini are hard to prove. Instead, Al-Houthi’s experience in Iran created more of a mimic. Thus, while Iran has played an important role in the ideological dimension of the Yemeni conflict, the extent of its influence should not be over exaggerated.

The Pursuit of Happiness

When the writers of the Declaration of Independence were setting out to delineate the foundation of American principles they were faced with a difficult decision. Understanding that wealth could not be promised to everyone, but acknowledging the importance of equity for the stability and growth of a country, they declared instead that all men were deserving of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. In many ways, for Yemen to be able to re-establish its title as the Happy Yemen, it will have to live up to a similar promise it makes its own people in the 1994 Constitution.

There it declares that “the national economy of Yemen is founded on freedom which benefits the individual and society and enhances national independence.” The factors that delineate the Houthi movement make it clear that the conflict between the Houthis and the Yemeni government is symptomatic of the state’s inability to provide sufficient development for the different social strata within the country. Since it was united in 1990, Yemen has not ceased to experience violent upheavals whether on its northern or its southern fronts. The problem of Yemen is not only related to ideology. Yemen suffers from grinding poverty, which manifests itself in ideological movements, such as the Houthis.

Though several agreements were signed between the government and the Houthi movement to put an end to the fighting, none of them lasted longer than few months. On the one hand, the Yemeni government feels that it needs to showcase its supreme authority in Yemen, lest other potential groups rise up against it and undermine its authority. On the other, Yemen, with its limited resources, is incapable of providing economic welfare for its citizens. It acts in congruence with regional and international alliances that do not always provide the suitable answer for the problems of Yemen, or other countries for that matter.

Subsequently, the fighting between the Houthis and the Yemeni government will not settle down peacefully. It is more likely that the Yemeni will end this conflict through the use of force as it currently aims to through Operation Scorched Earth. The Houthis are small in number, and though nestled in mountains and rough hideouts, do not have much power to confront the Yemeni forces for a lengthy period of time; though it is interesting that they have held the ground for so long in their fighting against the Yemeni State.

The fact that the Houthis do not enjoy the full support of the Zaydi community from which they hail and are inspired by outside powers that do not share contiguous space with them, put the Houthis at a great disadvantage. The Houthis are by far not the only problem that the Yemeni government faces today, yet they represent the extensive list of grievances caused by underlying tensions within Yemen’s society. Understanding who the Houthis are, and why they are fighting the government, thus highlights the importance of economic and community development Yemen requires if it aims to establish lasting peace.


Subscribe to the discussion