When the Houthis, (Shiite tribal militants based in northern Sa’ada) first moved against Salafis in Dammaj, calling for the departure of what the group perceived as religious extremists and wannabe Jihadist, most experts rationalized such bellicose stance by bringing the issue down to sectarianism, missing on a much grander political agenda.
To understand the psychology of this conflict, it is important to understand where exactly the Houthis, as a tribal faction and religious movement, are coming from. Often oppressed and repressed under the former regime on account of Saudi Arabia’s fear of all things Shia Islam, the Houthis have lived the past decades under continuous threats, their every move watched and analysed by Saudi Arabia allies in the region, al-Islah.
Founded by al-Ahmar clan, Yemen’s most powerful and influential Hashid tribal faction, al-Islah has dominated Yemen’s political life, for over two decades, side by side with the General People’s Congress, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s faction. A counter power to the GPC, under Riyadh direct patronage, al Islah has always drawn its political traction and power from its tribal line up. With powerful tribal leaders under its banner, al-Islah has known no rival, neither political nor tribal, since 1994.
Not even the Arab Spring managed to shake al-Islah from its axis; so strong and deep have its roots been embedded into Yemen’s fabric. A core element of Yemen social, political, tribal, religious, institutional and financial make up, al-Islah seemed set to endure the storms unscathed, while others scrambled to save their political necks.
However, Yemen’s political Titan failed to foresee a major shift in policy. When Saudi Arabia, its main-backer and patron, chose to disown the Muslim Brotherhood, branding its leadership radical, al-Islah lost one of its pillars.
As Saudi Arabia grew distant, al-Islah and al-Ahmar grew exponentially weaker, left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile political environment.
Sensing a change in Yemen’s power structure, the Houthis chose to test al-Islah’s armour by targeting Salafis militants, curious to test al-Islah’s resolve in defending its own.
Dammaj was never the real issue. What the Houthis aimed to do was to draw al-Islah out as to weaken its leadership and force its main component, al-Ahmar to expose itself militarily.
By advancing against al-Ahmar, the Houthis are not looking to gain more territories instead they aim to cancel out al-Islah’s ability to weight on Yemen’s political life.
Acutely aware they now stand alone against the Houthis (Saudi Arabia has so far failed to intervene in the conflict, at least officially), al-Ahmar have been forced to look inwards for support. On Wednesday al-Ahmar clan called on other tribal leaders to stand with them; an invitation which many houses have yet to answer.
While it would be foolish to write al-Ahmar out, the clan stands nevertheless diminished before the Houthis’ sudden rise in power.
The underdogs of Yemen’s political and tribal circles, the Houthis have often been dismissed as a rebel group with no real future or traction. Against the odds, the group nevertheless managed to steadily gain in popularity, cleverly tapping into Yemenis’ disillusionment with traditional factions to consolidate their influence.
Today the Houthis have managed to transition from a rebel group to a political movement with regional traction, real contenders to al-Islah. Actually, the Houthis are the perfect mirror image of al-Ahmar.
Like al-Ahmar, Abdel-Malek al Houthi draws his power from his tribe, like al-Ahmar he founded a political party (Ansar Allah) to assert his political legacy.
Although Abdel-Kader Hillal, Sana’a Mayor managed earlier this week to broker a truce in northern Amran, many fear both groups are merely gathering their strength ahead of a major military push.
Should President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi fail to contain this crisis, Yemen stands to be engulfed in another wave of violence.