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Yemen: Houthi influence on the rise

Shia rebels have emerged as the country's new power brokers, as Sanaa struggles to rein in the movement's mass protests
Last modified: 25 Aug 2014 20:55
Houthis have consolidated their hold on the north, advancing towards the capital Sanaa [Reuters]

Talks are under way to secure a deal between one of Yemen's powerful factions, the Shia Houthi rebels, and the ruling coalition led by the Sunni Islah party.

Divided along sectarian lines like Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; Yemen's government has struggled to contain the Shia Houthis who have tapped into widespread discontent over corruption and rising fuel prices.

And with their protests growing in scope and size, the Houthis are now on the streets, stoking tension, calling for the government to resign.

Houthi demands

The Houthis are demanding:

1. A new government of technocrats that has the backing of all political parties and factions. 

2. The president restore fuel subsidies. The government has scrapped the subsidies saving $3bn a year. But the Houthis say poor people are suffering more.

3. A bigger say in the running of the country during the transitional period.

But to understand Yemen’s simmering political problems one has to seek answers in the past.

For hundreds of years north Yemen, an area stretching from the capital Sanaa to Saada, was ruled by Imams; descendants of the House of the Prophet.

Zaidis, an offshoot of Shia Islam, fled persecution and settled in Yemen establishing the Imamate, a theocracy that lasted until 1962 when the Republic was announced.

The Imams never managed to extend their rule in the predominantly Sunni south, but the Zaidis continued to hold sway.

When the north and the south united in 1990, it was led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi from the north.

In the early 1990s, a group of disgruntled young people took to the streets in Saada province calling for religious and political freedoms. The Devout Youth was formed by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi and the movement would later be known as the Houthis.

Hussein launched an insurgency against the government in 2004. He was killed in 2005 but the group survived many wars. It’s now led by his brother Abdulmalik al-Houthi.

The government accuses the Houthis of spreading radical Shia ideology, and there is general feeling that the Houthis are forging strong ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia labelled the group a terrorist organisation.

2011 revolution

A mass protest movement calling for President Saleh to go soon evolved into a revolution that spread nationwide. Saleh was toppled in 2012 and Yemen’s different factions including the Houthis agreed on a roadmap and a transition to democracy.

The Houthis, or Partisans of God as they call themselves, have emerged as a powerful faction. Their young leader Abdulmalik may lack his predecessor’s charisma, but has proved to be a shrewd tactician.

He has expanded his power base in the north and the east, and last July his fighters rolled into the city of Amran north of the capital, killing an army general and seizing huge depots of arms and ammunition.

President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi denounced the onslaught but resisted calls to send troops recapture the city. A southerner who has been Saleh’s deputy, a ceremonial position, Hadi is under mounting pressure the rein in the Houthis' growing ambition.

But it’s not only the president who is wary of their spectacular rise to power. Traditional tribal leaders and the old guard are all worried about a group which doesn’t hide its contempt for the current political order.

The Houthis say that their demands are legitimate and their protests are peaceful.

But their opponents argue that the presence of fighters encircling the capital is a sign of the rebels plotting to seize power.

Possible scenarios

If talks fail, the sectarian divide will grow and so will inflammatory rhetoric that might lead to a full-blown civil war.

Alternatively, all the parties could agree on a deal to defuse the tension. However, Yemeni leaders, with very few exceptions, are known for temporising important issues, preferring instead to tinker around the edges.

But by shying away, the ongoing crisis may cripple Yemen, and deepen the sectarian divide and struggle for power.