Following decades of oppression and let’s face it against all odds, the Houthis of Yemen have managed what revolutionaries could not – depose the last remnants of the old regime. This formerly rebel faction of northern Sa’ada, a group which was born out of reaction against sectarian-motivated state repression in 1994 has managed since 2011 to reinvent itself as a popular movement with incredible traction.
Often described as the vessel of Yemen’s discontent as they have carried the demands of all Yemenis against the coalition government (a return to oil subsidies and change in government); giving those who felt they had no voice a catalyst and a platform to cry out their anger and express their frustration from, the Houthis claimed a victory this Sunday against Yemen’s deep state.
With Gen. Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar allegedly on the run and the announcement Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa resigned – one of Hamid Al Ahmar’s pawns – Al Islah’s political empire has but crumbled into dust.
If 2011 came to be known as the Arab Spring, September 2014 could soon be remembered as Yemen’s political emancipation.
For the first time in over three decades popular will has spoken louder than that of state officials. For a country which has been plagued by nepotism and rampant corruption; where people have been forced to live under the suffocating shadow of the leading class, such a brilliant popular victory stands a testament to Yemenis’ implacable determination to reclaim control over their political and institutional fate. For all those who ever dismissed the people of Yemen on account of their poverty and seemingly helplessness, September 2014 should stand a reminder that this nation of Arabia carries more strength and resolve than many cared to give it credit for. Maybe down but never beaten, the Yemenis have returned to challenge the state, quite determined this time to never again allow their leaders to shackle or silence them.
The story of a capitulation
When President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi announced on state television this Sunday that he had finally brokered an agreement with the Houthis, Yemenis understood that the coalition government has simply capitulated before Abdel-Malek Al Houthi.
This one faction of northern Yemen, the underdogs of Yemen’s politics, managed to topple the very faction Yemen imagined unbreakable – Al Islah.
The political kraken of Yemen, Al Islah has held the impoverished nation in the palm of its hand since 1994, when Saudi Arabia chose to back Sheikh Abdullah Ibn Hussain Al Ahmar to create a buffer to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. If former President Saleh appeared the undisputed ruler of Yemen, Al Islah – an umbrella faction for several political sub-groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis – sunk its claws deep into the country, slowly carving a state within the state. By the time Yemen’s first revolutionary wave took place, the country was quite literally ruled by two houses – Saleh and Al Ahmar.
It is actually under Al Ahmar’s impetus that Yemenis dared rose in opposition of President Saleh, calling for his resignation rather than political reforms as they initially demanded. In hindsight it has become rather clear that Al Islah’ support of Yemen’s Arab Spring was merely a ploy to seize utter and complete control over state institutions and turn Yemen into a republican farce.
Having tasted the bitter taste of Salafis rule, the Houthis which saw hope in 2011 uprising, quickly understood that if Yemen was ever to liberate itself from radical political Islam someone would have to challenge Al Islah and work to dismantle its powerhouse. And so began the march of the Houthis.
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 unravel, showing the extent of Yemen’s fragmentation along tribal and political lines.
The fledging house of card which Yemen had become was laid bare by the Houthis.
As Abdel-Malek Al Houthi questioned and taunt from his fief in Sa’ada, politicians’ power games and manipulations were exposed, putting in focus state lies, betrayals and deceits.
As the Houthis gained in popularity, trailing through Yemen highlands as they pushed further south against Al Ahmar tribes and its military patsies, securing strategic victories against the very men who sought for several decades to enslave their people on account of their religious belief – Shia Islam has long been demonized in Yemen, in line with Saudi Arabia’s desire to inspire fear toward Iran – Yemenis began to see the Zaidi faction under a new light.
Over the past months, the Houthis have become a catalyst of sort for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, they have come to embody the very change people have been so desperately yearning for. If in doubt, one needs only to look at the sea of protesters who week after week have answered Abdel-Malek Al Houthi’s call for mobilization in the capital, Sana’a.
Together we stand
Months of tensions and bitter battles have finally come to a close. After Yemenis came to fear the worse as Sana’a became centre-stage to an unprecedented violent military stand-off, with Houthis and Islahi militants mercilessly pounding at each-other in heavily populated residential areas, calm has been restored.
This truce, officials have been so keen to sell to the people as an agreement and not an admission of defeat before the Houthis, has rung the end of Al Islah’ supremacy over Yemen. 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 been forever diminished, stripped away by the one group they thought could never hold a candle to their might.
But if the corridors of power are abuzz with rumours and whispers as officials attempt to make sense of this new political order, waiting on Abdel-Malek Al Houthi to make his move, the people have welcomed the Houthis’ arrival in Sana’a with timid optimism.
While fears remain palpable, residents are slowly abandoning whatever prejudices they were taught to harbour against the Houthis. When they were told that the Houthis would undoubtedly come to loot and destroy, residents have seen order be restored to the streets almost instantly. As people were told that Abdel-Malek Al Houthi would seek to seize power and depose President Hadi, they saw instead Al Houthi abide by the terms of the truce he committed to.
For the first time in Yemen’s history, the victor has not come to claim his prize, breaking away from a destructive political cycle. Regardless of how one might feel about the Houthis, the group has so far held to its end of the deal.
Three years after Yemen began its long walk to democracy a once fragmented people stands a chance to turn the page on its troubled past – even Al Harak has said to be on-board with Yemen’s new order – southern secessionist movement
One question now remains; will Yemen be allowed to carve its own future or will foreign powers interfere with its emancipation?
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.