Yemen’s Houthi Challenge

Global Centre Stage

On September 21, political partners within the power-sharing government in Yemen signed a reconciliation deal with the rebel Houthi group. However, this UN-brokered peace deal is unlikely to be the kind of long-term agreement the country desperately needs, says Dr Shaul Shay

Yemeni President Abdrabuh Mansour Hadi faces the biggest crisis of his presidency. Days of heavy fighting, which left at least 140 people dead in capital Sana’a, came to an end on September 21, with the resignation of the prime minister and a tentative new peace deal. Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindawa rendered his resignation while accusing transition President Hadi of violating the Gulf initiative for power transition through plotting to stay in power alone. The deal that calls for the formation of a new government within a month aims to bring an end to weeks of clashes and protests that have crippled the capital.

Houthi ‘Blitz’ in Sana’a

Before the offensive, loyalists of the Shi’ite Houthi group protested in the capital and mobilised on its outskirts for more than a week in a bid to demand the government’s resignation and a rollback of the fuel price hike.1 Over the past few months, they successfully fought a series of battles in their northern stronghold against rival Sunni Muslim militias and allied troops loyal to the Sunni Islamist Islah Party, bringing them to the outskirts of Sana’a.

The Houthi offensive led to six days of heavy fighting in Sana’a. The Houthis focussed their assault on the headquarters of the First Armoured Division, a force they describe as loyal to Sunni Islamist parties. They captured the headquarters and seized tanks and other military hardware. They also attacked a religious university run by Sheikh Abdel-Majeed al-Zindani, another Sunni figure associated with the Islamist Islah party. As the Houthis fought their way to both facilities in northern Sana’a, government institutions surrendered without a fight. Some Yemenis speculated Hadi’s government had colluded with the group so that the Houthis would defeat figures seen as a threat to the president.2

Houthi militants expanded their battles in the capital seizing key public offices including the Defence Ministry, the radio station and the cabinet, a day after they took over and shut down Yemen TV. They also seized the headquarters of the Army Command after clashes with the guards.

These developments coincided with reports that Houthi representatives had made their way to capital Sana’a to sign a reconciliation deal with the government.

Houthi fighters clashed with soldiers loyal to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, one of the country’s most powerful generals and former head of the First Armoured Division. Ahmar, who led most of the wars against Houthis over the past decade, is a holdover from the old regime. In late 2012, the First Armoured Division was officially disbanded and its headquarters declared a public park. Ahmar and his men largely ignored the order. The general, however, seems to have escaped. His current whereabouts are unknown, and Houthi fighters are in control of at least one of his houses in a suburb of Sana’a.3 The house of Hamid al-Ahmar, the leader of the Yemeni Alliance for Reform party, was also looted. The Houthis also took over homes of several tribal sheikhs, who fought alongside Ali Muhsin over the past decade.4 These Shi’a rebels held positions around key government offices and army bases in Sana’a, which they captured without resistance just hours before signing the peace agreement.

Genesis and Growth

The Houthis (who officially call themselves ‘Ansar Allah’) are named after their former leader, Hussein Badreddin Al-Houthi, who was killed by Yemeni government forces in 2004. He combined Zaydi revivalism with sharp political criticism of both local and international actors from his base in the mountainous west of Sa’ada Province in Yemen’s northwest corner, thus crafting a historically rooted discourse of justice and empowerment that resonated throughout the region. Hussein al-Houthi was able to create a strong network of devoted followers in Yemen’s north, where Zaydism remained strong despite the overthrow of the country’s Zaydi Imamate in 1962.

The manhunt that eventually killed al-Houthi unleashed a spiral of violence beginning in 2004 that became known as the six ‘Sa’ada Wars’ – six separate wars fought against a wide coalition of forces led by the central government in Sana’a, but which also included Salafi and tribal fighters.

The group transformed from a grassroots Zaydi revivalist network under al-Houthi’s leadership to a strong insurgent fighting force under the leadership of Hussein’s younger half-brother, Abdul Malik. By the sixth war in 2009, Houthi fighters pushed the fighting beyond Yemen’s borders. In November 2009, the Saudi Arabian military intervened to support the Yemeni government in its fight with the group. Three months later, the Houthis accepted a Qatari-negotiated ceasefire that teetered along during the following year.

Role in the Arab Spring

Since February 2011, the Houthi movement has played an important role in Yemen’s political transition. The group responded to the Arab Spring and in particular to the slow, negotiated ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthi positions aligned with those of the ‘revolutionary youth,’ calling for the downfall of the regime and justice for its victims. As the central government’s focus turned towards the capital, state authority in Sa’ada Province crumbled, allowing the Houthis to consolidate control over the administration of a province they had been contesting for over a decade. At the same time, the group attempted to seize administrative control in areas where it only had a foothold, with mixed results.

Critics accuse the Houthis of expansionist designs, specifically the creation of a ‘Zaydi State’ or ‘Houthi Imamate’ in Yemen’s northern provinces (Sa’ada, Hajjah, Amran, al-Jawf and Ma’rib), which the Houthis deny.

National Dialogue

Yemeni leaders concluded a 10-month National Dialogue Conference in January 2014, which made a number of recommendations for reforming the constitution and the country’s political system. The Houthi movement agreed to participate in the National dialogue from the beginning; however, they suspended attendance occasionally due to a variety of grievances.5 Plans for a six-region federation have been rejected by both the Houthis and the southern separatists. This is a remarkable turnaround for a group that was once believed to be on the verge of political and religious extinction in Yemen.

Peace and National Partnership Agreement

Yemeni political partners within the power-sharing government signed a reconciliation deal with the rebel Houthi group on September 21.6 The deal, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar in accordance with the outcomes of the comprehensive national dialogue from March 2013 to January 2014, will see the government reduce the price of gasoline to YR3,000 (almost $14), a 25 percent decrease from the YR4,000 ($18). It will also see the current transitional government dissolved and replaced by a new government of technocrats formed from all factions, including the Houthis. They are expected to get a number of cabinet positions in this representative body, possibly as many as their biggest rival and Yemen’s Islamist party, al-Islah.7

Meanwhile, reports suggest that Houthi representatives who signed the deal did not agree to the security extension of the deal, which was focussed on disarming violent groups in accordance with the dialogue’s outcome. This included cooperating to impose the rule of law in all areas, evacuating cities occupied by militias and ending all security and political tensions.

Iran’s Role in the Houthi Victory

The Houthis are seen as allied to Iran, the main Shi’ite power in the region and foe of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. Their Zaydi Shi’ite sect is related to but separate from the sect practiced in Iran. The Saudi and Yemeni governments both accuse Iran of helping the Houthis and secretly arming the rebel group. Iran has welcomed the peace deal in Yemen, which is considered a victory for the Houthis, and maintained that the agreement was reached as a result of the Yemeni people’s vigilance as well as the self-restraint of the government and political and social groups in the course of recent protests.

Yemen has been locked in a protracted transition since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of power in February 2012 after a deadly 11-month uprising. The country remains unstable and security conditions have deteriorated under his successor, President Hadi.

The Houthi rebels seek to establish themselves as the dominant force in the country’s northern highlands and secure a larger share of power in a future federal government. They will continue fighting to establish control over areas they see as their natural sphere of influence. The Peace and National Partnership Agreement is unlikely to be the kind of long-term agreement the country desperately needs.

Over the past two years, the Houthis have moved far beyond their narrow sectarian origins. They have broadened their appeal beyond their traditional power base of Zaydi Muslims, and, in the process, have emerged as Yemen’s primary opposition group. The group may not have enough power to impose their will upon the rest of the country, but they now have enough supporters and weapons to act as an effective veto to Yemen’s central government. But in a country where alliances shift frequently, the Houthis may still not be the dominant force and resist the onslaught of other more powerful groups.

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Dr Shaul Shay

Dr Shaul Shay is former deputy head of Israel National Security Council, and former head of the IDF military history department. He is a senior research fellow of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and the International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzeliya (IDC), Israel.

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    1. Zaidi militants seize Yemen capital ahead of peace deal , Yemen Post, September 21, 2014.


    3. Yemen rebels raid army commander’s house, Al Jazeera, September 22, 2014.

    4. Yemen rebels raid army commander’s house, Al Jazeera, September 22, 2014.

    5. Yemeni factions sign “peace, national partnership deal”, Yemen Post, September 21, 2014.

    6. Will Yemenis honour the new deal? Al Jazeera, September 22, 2014.

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