April 4, 2015


Yemen: The Houthi Enigma (Robert F. Worth, 4/02/15, NY Review of Books)

There is a scene in Safa al Ahmad's remarkable BBC documentary, Yemen: The Rise of the Houthis, when a spokesman for the Houthi movement escorts her to a remote and unguarded section of the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is nothing more than a half-trampled barbed-wire fence, in a golden-brown landscape of dry hills and scattered acacia trees. "This means nothing, it represents nothing," he says of the border. The Houthis, a once-obscure band of insurgents from the mountains of northern Yemen who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, have over the past few months taken over much of the country. "We cannot be defined by sect or confined by borders," the spokesman says. "We will help oppressed people all over the world." Then, flourishing a confident smile, he predicts the imminent demise of the House of Saud. [...]

Al Ahmad's film is a rare close-up look at the most mysterious player in this agonizing and complex drama. The Houthi movement has long been an enigma, even to many Yemenis, and it defies easy explanation. This is partly because the Houthis are secretive and protective of their leaders, and partly because their goals have shifted over time. When I first started reporting on them, almost a decade ago, they were an obscure group confined to Yemen's far northwest, and the Yemeni military was bombarding them for reasons few Yemenis seemed to understand. Their movement grew out of a deep sense of victimization by the state, and al Ahmad captures this with unusual footage from Saada, the Houthi heartland, including scenes of the cave (now a kind of shrine) where the group's founder, Hussein al Houthi, made his last stand before being killed in 2004.

Yemen's population is about a third Zaydi (the rest are Sunnis), and the country was ruled--on and off--for a thousand years by an elite caste of Zaydis who traced their ancestry to the prophet Muhammad. After the republican revolution in 1962, the state mistreated many of these Zaydis, seeing them as a potential fifth column. In the 1980s, the government started subsidized the building of Saudi-style Sunni schools and mosques right in the Zaydi heartland, provoking the Zaydis to fight back with their own revivalist religious ideology. The more militant Zaydis increasingly saw Saudi Arabia, with its intolerant view of all Shiites, as their enemy; and they took inspiration from the Iranian revolution of 1979, including its opposition to Western interference in the Middle East (they are known for chanting a slogan that includes the words "Death to America" at mosques and rallies). Hussein al Houthi declared his resistance to Yemeni policies in 2003, and the state quickly took up arms against him and his followers.

After Hussein's death in 2004, Yemen's US-backed president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, continued waging intermittent wars on the Houthis--now led by his brother, Abdulmalik. These were carried out with such brutality and incompetence that the Houthi movement grew in size and fighting ability, gaining sympathy from northern tribes who suffered in the wars. After the uprising in 2011 that ultimately forced Saleh to step aside, Yemen was theoretically governed by Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, the new president named in a transitional process underwritten by the Gulf states and the US. In reality, the government was losing control of the country, with al-Qaeda bombers and kidnappers running rampant. The Houthis were the only group with the cohesion and discipline to hold terrain. They grew even stronger after forming a tactical alliance with their former enemy, ex-president Saleh, who still controlled much of the military. And the Iranians gave them the money they needed for the final push to Sanaa, the capital, last fall.

Posted by at April 4, 2015 7:53 AM

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