Ever since last October, when Houthis militants laid siege on Dar al-Hadith Salafi religious centre, in the northern province of Sa’ada, Yemen has been in a state of great turmoil, with media and politicians speaking of an impending war should the central government fail to diffuse the situation.
The Houthis, Shia group organized politically under the name, Ansar Allah, has had a long and difficult history with al-Islah. To better understand how such deep-seated animosity came to be, one needs to look back at the history books.
When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh called on Saudi Arabia to offer its support in quelling 1994 southern secession war, only four years into the unification deal, Riyadh was keen to oblige on the conditions that then-President Saleh would agree to become a vassal of sort.
Uneasy at the idea of having a republic so close to its border, 1994 war, allowed Saudi Arabia to create a network of alliances and allegiances in Yemen, guaranteeing its leadership greater control. Saudi Arabia’s patronage over Yemen was born.
Under the watchful eye and generosity of al-Saud, Yemen Salafis (Sunni ultra-orthodox) grew in influence, spearheaded by al-Islah, Sunni radical faction, which to this day acts an umbrella for several tribal and Sunni religious factions, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Strong of its tribal make up under the leadership of al-Ahmar clan (Yemen’s most prominent tribal faction) al-Islah acted a buffer to then-President Saleh’s otherwise unparalleled influence over Yemen’s political life.
As al-Islah expanded its zone of influence, Yemen northern Shia Zaidi community, which would come to be known as the Houthis, suddenly found itself threatened by the ever-increasing influence of Salafism, an interpretation of Sunni Islam which calls for a stricter application of Islamic laws and teachings. Keen to protect his religious tradition and reclaim his territorial independence, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the forefather of the Houthi movement, approached then-President Saleh, in view of brokering an alliance against he perceived to be a common threat.
While Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi and President Saleh should have been on paper strategic allies, since both sought to contain al-Islah and Sunni radicalism influence in Yemen as to assert and protect their own political and tribal footing, history chose instead to pit the two against each other.
Little is it known that before reneging former President Saleh’s authority, Badreddin al-Houthi was an acting member of the Republic. A prominent Zaydi cleric, he was a member of the Yemeni parliament from 1993 to 1997, representing the Zaydi al-Haqq party.
As al-Islah intensified its campaigns against al-Houthi, looking to destroy his political traction as to better exert its own influence over Yemen rich highlands, Baddreddin al-Houthi hardened his critics of the central government; stressing Sana’a had been corrupted by its western alliances.
In June 2004, the Yemeni government accused Hussein al-Houthi of establishing unlicensed religious centres, trying to establish an imamate, and acting as a representative of Iranian interests in Yemen. It is this very narrative, this idea that the Houthis seek to revert Yemen to pre-1962 revolution which has often clouded judgement and prevented many to recognize the group’s true intentions. Later in 2004, Hussein al-Houthi was killed, prompted his sons to carry on his political legacy. Abdel Malek al-Houthi came to preside over the group.
From 2004 to 2009 the Houthis lived through nine wars. And although they lost all of them, their ability to survive Sana’a’s military onslaughts gave the group an aura of invincibility which has helped it create a revolutionary myth.
As pointed by Aref Abu Hatem (Yemeni political analyst) to the Yemen Post, the Houthis managed with every war and every battle to somehow return in greater number and greater force, pointing to some outside help. Rumoured to be supported both militarily and financially by Iran and government officials (the group has always denied any connection to Tehran other than purely amicable), the Houthis have for the past two decades been compared to the Lebanese Hezbollah (a group which too carries strong links with Iran).
Abu Hatem theorized that while then-President Saleh waged open wars against the Houthis over the span of five years, he did so in the hope that such military exposure would weaken al-Islah’s main military arm, Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. The most powerful military man in Yemen, Gen. al-Ahmar was back then a direct threat to President Saleh’s otherwise absolute authority over the armed forces.
Covertly supporting the Houthis through his son, Gen. Ahmed Ali saleh, the then-Commander in Chief of the Republican Guards and Special Forces, President Saleh would have enabled the Houthis just enough to chip away at al-Islah’s armour and thus help him position himself as the stronger party, explained Abu Hatem.
Yemen’s Arab Spring
If since their emergence in the late 1990s the Houthis were unable to garner enough momentum to truly hope to become a political contender, 2011 uprising changed everything.
As Yemen’s political and tribal giants, the GPC versus al-Islah and al-Ahmar versus Saleh clashed, battling for control, their attention solely focused on one another, the Houthis were given just enough room to reinvent themselves as a political movement with regional and national pull. No longer a rebel group, the Houthis consolidated their legitimacy on the back of the revolution, banking on Yemenis’ thirst and need for a new political narrative.
Stronger than ever, with militants stationed at the very heart of the capital, Sana’a, and more men dedicated to its cause than ever before, the Houthis/Ansar Allah quickly established themselves as the new kingmakers, the underdogs of Yemen’s political game.
But while the Houthis were stronger they were not yet in the position to openly challenged al-Islah, its old enemy. But again, history will offer the movement another incredible window of opportunity. With the ouster from power of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Houthis in Yemen recognise that Sunni radicals were standing on quick sand. As weeks and months rolled in, the Brotherhood came to be associated to Islamic terrorism and radicalism, killing any hope of a political future for the movement.
Essentially the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates in the region allowed the Houthis to rise above their former station and firmly define themselves as a new power in Yemen. All the while former President Saleh was paying attention.
Looking at current events, Abu Hatem explained that ongoing clashes in the northern province of Amran are to be understood as an attempt to annihilate al-Islah and its main tribal backer, al-Ahmar.
Abu Hatem stressed that the Houthis’s new found military might is to be put down to the tactical and financial help provided by its new backers: the United States of America. Keen to reign down on Islamic radicalism Washington is rumoured to have provided ground intelligence to the Houthis and convinced both Saudi Arabia and Yemen President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi not to intervene. And indeed except for a few attempts at a truce, President Hadi has relatively permitted both warring factions to have it out on the battlefield.