Sana’a: When protests erupted last month over an anti-Islam film made in California, Yemen’s Al Houthi rebels, long confined to remote corners of the country by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, covered the capital in posters, banners and graffiti denouncing the United States.
Western diplomats and even Islamists were taken aback by the sudden show of strength in a city from which the rebel group had long been banished.
“They really have a very broad strategy to increase their influence on politics and society — we believe for very negative purposes,” said one senior Western diplomat. “My take on the rhetoric is that it is bought and paid for by the government of Iran and they are simply following instructions that they get from Tehran.”
Analysts and diplomats believe that the ascent of Al Houthis, named after its leaders’ family, has turned Yemen into a new front in a long struggle between Iran and Western powers, centred on a nuclear programme that Israel and the West say is aimed at making atomic weapons and altering the regional balance of power. Iran denies those charges.
Gulf Arab governments accuse Iran of stoking communal passions around the region, and Yemen this year also accused Iran of trying to meddle in its affairs. Saleh’s successor Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi snubbed a visiting Iranian envoy in July to signal “displeasure” with Tehran after Sana’a said it had uncovered an Iranian-led spy ring in the capital, charges Hadi repeated during a visit to the United States last week.
In Sana’a, whose large Zaidi — Shiite — population, especially in historic Old Sana’a, forms a natural support base for Al Houthis, slogans attacking the United States borrow directly from Iranian lexicon such as ‘the great Satan’ and ‘global arrogance’.
Others call for a boycott of US and Israeli products, which the group believes find their way disguised into Yemen.
Other slogans declare that the graffiti campaign is a kind of revolutionary tactic, declaring that “slogans have revealed the high level of alert, caution and readiness to the nation”. The slogans started to appear after protesters incensed by the anti-Islam film stormed the US embassy, followed by street protests that security forces allowed to peter out without incident.
“The government wants to show more freedoms and doesn’t want any clash, so it left them alone,” says Abdul Fattah, an Arabic teacher in the old city who opposes the Al Houthis. “They found a chance to show themselves and exploit people’s feelings.”
The interim government aims to include Al Houthis in a national dialogue set for November which is meant to work out a new pluralistic political system. But some Sunnis fear Al Houthis want to revive the Zaidi Imamate, the 1,000-year-long rule of Yemen in which power was passed through leaders claiming their lineage originated from the Prophet Mohammad [Peace Be Upon Him]. The imamate ended in a 1962 military coup.
In the complex interweaving of tribal and religious boundaries in Yemeni society, sympathies do not split along purely Sunni-Shiite lines, however.
Some Sunnis who also track their ancestry to the Prophet [PBUH] are sympathetic to Al Houthis, while many Zaidis, including Saleh and the prominent Al Ahmar clan, opposed them.
The Al Ahmar family itself dominates the Hashid tribal federation, which comprises both Sunnis and Shiites, and the Al Ahmars are key figures in the Sunni Islamist Islah party.
Many Zaidis in the old city have acquiesced to the growing power of Al Houthis, however.
“This is people expressing themselves; 30 or 40 per cent of the Old City are sympathetic to it,” said Ahmad Ezz, outside an old city mosque, adding: “[Al] Houthi thought isn’t extremist.”
Analysts say the Al Houthi phenomenon — like the emergence of southern secessionism — is a result of marginalisation and the hold that Saleh’s northern-based and Saudi-backed tribal and religious ruling elite had on power and economic resources.
The group emerged after a civil war in 1994 enforced unity between north and south Yemen, evolving into a Hezbollah-style militia centred around Al Houthi family in the remote and neglected Saada province bordering Saudi Arabia.
Saleh’s failed wars to crush them began in 2004.
Calling themselves Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), a term apparently modelled on the Hezbollah (Party of God) in Lebanon, Al Houthis have built alliances with the southern secessionist movement and run a television channel Al Maseera out of Beirut.
They taunt their Sunni rivals as pawns of Riyadh and Wahhabi Islam who are not willing to challenge US policy in the region.
“Wahhabi thought came from Saudi Arabia about 50 years ago, but [Al] Houthi thought has been in Yemen for over 1,000 years,” said Ali Al Emad, leader of Ansar Allah’s youth section in Sana’a. “The [Al] Houthi movement is a resistance movement. Its political slant is clear: the rejection of the hegemony and global arrogance of the United States.”
Al Emad denied aiming to revive the Zaidi Imamate, or preferring a ruler descended from the Prophet [PBUH]: “We took part in the revolution [against Saleh] and we have a political vision for a civilian state that assures rights, freedom and equality for all, regardless of which region or tribe people come from.”
BOX- A state within state
After a series of wars failed to crush the movement in its north Yemen base of Saada - including one in 2009 during which Saudi Arabia openly joined in against them - the province has fallen openly into Al Houthi hands with an Al Houthi-imposed governor.
Al Houthis clashed with Sunni Islamist Salafis over control of mosques in Amran and Hajjah provinces north of Sanaa in September, and many fear the conflict could move to the capital.
In the Al Qaa quarter, a mosque preacher praises the Zaidi imams.
“He wouldn’t dare have said that before, when Saleh was around,” muttered Mohammad Bamatraf, a supporter of the security Yemen Socialist Party and an opponent of the former president.
Free to operate, the group sold CDs, books and posters at this year’s Sana’a Book Fair and maintains a large tented presence at Change Square, the focus of last year’s uprising against Saleh. Along the road, they have daubed the words ‘USA’ inside blue Stars of David on the tarmac.
Islah, represented in the transitional cabinet, fears Al Houthis are trying to bring all northern provinces under their control before entering the national dialogue.
“They are flexing muscles on the streets of the capital... They want a conflict with Salafists in some neighbourhoods,” said spokesman Mohammad Qahtan. He said Al Houthi sectarianism could open a Pandora’s box in Yemen.
“We support turning them into a political party, but we don’t accept that they replicate Hezbollah in Yemen and become a state within a state.”
This may have already happened, analysts say.
“They were able to reach outside their homebase because of corruption and lack of rule of law, though their ideology is not appealing to the majority in Yemen,” said political analyst Abdul Gani Al Eryani.
“The concept of the Imamate is inbuilt with their ideology but they are not foolish enough to think they can enforce it: that’s why they favour decentralisation.”