The long struggle behind a seemingly surprising coup
Sana'a, Yemen. Photo by Alexandra Pugachevsky via Flickr
For weeks now, news of a sudden coup and growing instability has been trickling out of Yemen and into the collective fears of many outside observers. At the center of this kerfuffle are the Houthis, who seemingly emerged from nowhere to suddenly dominate headlines all over the world. In light of the Houthis’ current success—within a matter of months, they managed to dissolve the national parliament, oust President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and consolidate their control over the capital of Sana’a and the government—shockingly few people really know who these militants are, much less where they came from and how they rapidly rose to power. Even many of those who thought they knew the region and its major players underestimated the Houthis, blind to the group’s two and a half decades of persistent struggle for prominence in Yemen.
So who are the Houthis? Most Houthis are members of the Zaydi sect that dominates pockets of northern Yemen and makes up about two-fifths of the nation’s population. The Zaydi are a branch of Shi’a Muslims, but simply lumping them in with Shi’a in Iran (as many seem to be doing) is foolish. Zaydis differ from other Shi’a in profound ways, not just theologically, but politically, believing for instance that only a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad can become the leader of the Islamic world (the Imam, a prophetic figure who Iranian Shi’a believe does not exist on Earth right now). They also believe that the only way to claim this title is to fight for the power and integrity of the Zaydi faith. This pretty much makes Zaydis heretics to the Shi’a as much as to Sunni clerics.
For over a millennium, Zaydi Imams managed to rule northern Yemen fairly autonomously. But in 1962, they were ousted by an Egyptian-backed coup, creating a separate republic in the north that only reunited with the rest of Yemen in 1990, forming the country we know today. After their absorption into a nation predominated by Sunnis and southerners, the Zaydis became restive, taking literal and figurative shots at officials whenever possible. The Houthi group originated in the 1990s as a moderating force in the newly-reunited country’s unrest—a theological movement founded by one Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, dedicated to peace and interfaith tolerance. However, as time passed, the group grew increasingly less satisfied with the status quo. After al-Houthi died in a 2004 uprising, his successors shifted towards a more sectarian, militant stance, waging five rebellions before signing a ceasefire agreement in 2011. They went on to participate in the Arab Spring uprisings and the subsequent National Dialogue Conference that began to charter Yemen’s new form and path.
Divided Yemen, before reunification in 1990. Image by Orange Tuesday via Wikimedia Commons
But the Houthis were none too happy with the power sharing arrangements of this dialogue. Under the leadership of a new front man, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, in the summer of 2014 they started to agitate in the capital of Sana’a for better representation and economic concessions—only to be fired upon by Yemeni authorities. These clashes led to escalating protests-turned-occupations of government buildings and major facilities. Eventually the central government gave in to several of their demands and signed a truce. Yet the Houthis never withdrew from Yemen and resumed a more deliberate and aggressive seizure of power in January 2015, claiming to be implementing a fairer and truly representative, democratic government with an honest form of power sharing in place.
Many suspect that the only way this ragtag group could have gone from bit player in the north to kingmaker at Yemen’s core in just a few short years was through the support of outside backers. A general theory of Shi’a helping Shi’a to promote Iranian regional dominance asserts than Tehran is backing the Houthis. Meanwhile, others say they’ve observed loyalists to Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s president from 1990 to 2012, fighting alongside the Houthis, leading them to believe the Zaydis are basically a front for an old guard resurgence. But given the historical tension between Zaydis and Iranian Shi’a and the Houthis’ role in Saleh’s overthrow, both of these simple explanations (while not impossible in the pragmatic world of geopolitical bedfellows) seem anemic and fishy.
In truth, a good part of the Houthi rise stems from their skill as reactive power balancers, negotiators, and spin-doctors. In a country rife with unrest, poverty, and factionalism, the Houthis played other groups off each other in their rise to power in the north. They translated that success into popular support and manpower within their group of core backers, but also amongst other Yemenis who saw improvements in their lifestyle under the Houthi occupation of Sana’a. Appealing to notions of true Yemeni authenticity and autonomy and cursing the West and Israel (yet never actually moving against the interests of those they spoke out against), they gained rhetorical credibility without really pissing off anyone too powerful. And with an eye to the future, during times of peace they slowly embedded their agents into key ministries, asserting control of infrastructure, checkpoints, and media for when they rose up against Hadi.
Houthi banner reading “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam”
None of this necessarily required any complex intrigue and backing from abroad. The Houthis may just be proof of what clever and strategic organizers can do in the midst of chaos. Their avoidance of international scrutiny leverages what they know about outsiders’ inability to penetrate or understand the chaos in which they prospered. Case in point—experts were aware of the Houthis’ activities in the area for years, but focusing on the major political narratives of the day, they ignored these regional upstarts to concentrate on the threat of groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The north of Yemen seemed too disorganized and tumultuous to yield a threat to national stability on par with a major international terror syndicate. But gradually and strategically, the Houthis made their moves in a way that seemed sudden to those with preconceptions about the region’s key players and expected outcomes.
Yet we’ve already started to form new narratives about the future of Houthi Yemen, stemming from the same mistakes that made their ascent such a surprise to outsiders and politicos. If we want to understand the opaque and complex worlds of regional power brokering and chaotic political vacuums, we have to be as flexible and nuanced as the groups that can manipulate that tumult into their own source of power. Reports of protests against the Houthis and stories of Houthis banning demonstrations, firing on protestors, and clashing with Sunnis has led to the notion that these upstarters have bitten off more than they can chew and will surely fall. Many predict the inevitable galvanization and rebellion of the southern Sunni, intervention by anti-Shi’a Gulf states, and proliferation of (again, everyone’s favorite bogeyman) al-Qaeda in the chaos. Signaling their conviction that the Houthis are punching above their weight and will inevitably fall in the fracas following their uprising, the U.S. has evacuated its embassy and disavowed Houthi plans for an inclusive, democratic government as too unilateral.
These gloomy predictions seem to be predicated on the idea that the Houthis are an incompetent proxy for larger powers and are destined for failure. They ignore the crux of Houthi power: the ability to plan strategically and decode Yemeni chaos, spinning disorder to their benefit. A Houthi collapse is far from guaranteed, especially if they do, in fact, have the foreign backing many believe they do. So we might want to spend a little less time thinking about the insanity that will supposedly ensue and consider how this ragtag group might succeed in their efforts to entrench in Yemen—and what we would do if they managed to hold onto power. It’d be a shame for the world to be taken by surprise once again, just because we couldn’t see beyond a narrow narrative of Yemeni politics and Middle Eastern disorder.