Yemen’s Houthis and their rise to power

Yemen's Houthis are thought to get limited help from Iran

Journalist Yousef Mawry reports from Sana’a on the rise of the Houthis, and the real possibility that Yemen may become a new Iraq or Syria.

The Houthis are Yemen’s Shia-Zaidi sects who for years have had a chip on their shoulder after engaging in six wars with the former regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh along with the military unit of General Ali Muhsun al-Ahmar which killed the movement’s founder – Hussain Badr al-Deen al-Houthi – in the first war in Sa’da in 2004.

In 2010, the Yemeni government and the Houthis signed a truce to end the war which resulted in the army’s withdrawal from the war-torn northern province of Sa’da.

But ever since then, the reinvigorated Shia-Zaidi movement decided to no longer be the victim on the defensive and to take the fight to all those whom they regarded as their enemies.

Rise to power

In the beginning of August, the Houthis’ young leader Abd al-Malek al-Houthi called on the Yemeni people to revolt against what he proclaimed to be the Islah Party’s corrupt regime, after the government committed political suicide by nearly doubling the prices of fuel and diesel – a move which outraged all Yemenis, and perhaps gave the Houthis the definitive opportunity to make a move for the capital.

After the Houthi leader’s call for a revolution against the detested government, tens of thousands of Houthis along with supporters began to organize demonstrations in the capital Sana’a to demand the downfall of the Yemeni government and for an end to fuel subsidy cuts.

The slogan had its intended effect and attracted many discontented Sunni Yemenis fed up with government corruption and yearning for change.

In the following days, Houthi protesters blocked off the Sana’a international airport road and declared the site the launching ground of their revolution, where they began to stage mass rallies urging the Yemeni people to join them in their quest to “restore Yemen’s dignity”.

After a week of mass rallies in Sana’a, the Yemeni government refused to restore fuel subsidies and declared the Houthis a rebel group attempting to overthrow the Yemeni government.

Abd al-Malek al-Houthi
Abd al-Malek al-Houthi

Abd al-Malek al-Houthi then called on his supporters to assemble camps surrounding the outskirts of the Yemeni capital and to intensify anti-government activities inside Sana’a by protesting in front of key government facilities to pressure the Yemeni government into meeting the protester’s demands.

This strategic move forced a violent reaction from security forces, giving the Houthis the justification they needed to take up arms and defend the peaceful protesters and eventually enter the capital to eliminate rival political opponents.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of government advocates, mainly from Yemen’s Islah Party, began to rally supporters in the main Sitteen Street of Sana’a in solidarity with the Yemeni government and to condemn what they called the “Houthi plan to overthrow the government”.

The Islah Party’s strong support gave President Hadi and his cabinet confidence to fight back rather than give in to Houthis demands.

However, the Houthi’s revolutionary front was increasing in numbers and gaining momentum, as loyalists of former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh began to take to the streets with the Houthis against the Yemeni government, or in Saleh’s case against the Islah party and the al-Ahmar family who led the 2011 revolution that toppled him from power.

This was Ali Abdullah Saleh’s opportunity for sweet revenge against Yemen’s Islah party and the al-Ahmar family.

And because Ali Saleh and his son Ahmed Ali still have control of Yemen’s strongest and largest army unit “The Republican Guards” the Yemeni government, the Islah party and the family of al-Ahmar will not be able to sustain a direct military confrontation with the Houthis.

This became clear after the government proposed an initiative to restore fuel subsidies by 15 percent and to form a new government which the Houthis twice rejected.

It’s not that the Houthis didn’t want to form a new government, they just wanted it to be formed after they neutralized their opponents, which to them is the Islah Party’s military wing – The First Armoured Division Bridge, under the command of General Ali-Muhsun al-Ahmar.

The U.N backed agreement

As anti-government rallies continued to intensify in Sana’a, the UN Envoy to Yemen Jamal Ben Omar made an emergency visit to Sa’da to meet with the Houthi leader in a bid to strike a deal to save Yemen from descending into civil war.

No one knows what exactly was discussed between the two; however, the UN Envoy said that the Yemeni government and the Houthis agreed to sign a deal to restore fuel subsidies and form a new government within 30 days.

Immediately after the agreement was announced, Houthi fighters stormed Sana’a to disarm the army unit of General Ali Muhsun al-Ahmar. A three day war broke out in the south of the capital which ended with Houthis overpowering the armed forces and eventually taking over the military base of General Ali Muhsun who flew out of the country before the takeover.

Oddly, the UN-backed agreement was signed only a few hours after Sana’a fell under Houthi control.

Saudi Arabia

So it seems that President Hadi and the UN Envoy (along with Saudi Arabia and other global powers) indirectly gave the Houthis the green light to move in and take out the Muslim Brotherhood’s military might in Yemen which for decades had influenced Yemeni politics.

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has very close ties with the US and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz has very close ties with the US and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Saudi Arabia had previously declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization with visions of establishing an extremist Islamic political system. Ultimately, the rise of a Sunni-caliphate or an Islamic political system in the region would pose a great threat to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and western interests in the region.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood represents a modern version of Islam and calls for democracy, they are still considered to be the largest Islamic movement in the world, who could make it easier for other Islamic groups to establish a caliphate system which would erase Sikes-Picot borders and unite the Muslim world under one ruler, one economy and one superpower state.


But the Houthis in Yemen and other Shia factions in the region don’t seem to have an agenda to establish a caliphate like most Sunni Islamic groups. Therefore, in order to eliminate the threat of a forthcoming caliphate in the heart of Arabia, one would only need to bring to power Shia-backed regimes or secular regimes in the whole of the region.

A similar situation took place in Egypt when Sisi’s military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood forced a secular system on the country.

This was also the case in Tunisia after the Islamic Al Nahda Party won elections and were then pressured to form a new government consisting of other secular Tunisian parties.

New government

In Yemen’s case, the government that will be formed in the weeks to come will mostly be influenced by Shia-Zaidi Houthis with the added element of southern Yemeni communists- who voted against making Islamic Shariah the main source of legislation in the new Yemeni constitution.

Therefore, the new Yemeni government will most likely crackdown on any anti-democratic “radical” groups that are pro-caliphate under the pretext of it being an “ISIS extremist ideology”.

ISIS fighters in Iraq
ISIS fighters in Iraq

In a number of TV appearances, the Houthi leader stated that Yemen’s Islah Party is an extremist ISIS affiliated group which is responsible for aiding and financing terrorism in Yemen, following the example of Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi and his similar accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

According to the UN backed agreement signed between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, the new government of Yemen will prioritize the fight against Al-Qaida and extremist groups as a main objective.

Yemen’s Al-Qaida branch has a strong presence in the south of the country, carrying out a number of attacks against Houthi patrols and security checkpoints in the capital Sana’a this past week.

As a result of this unstable condition, the possibility of Yemen spiralling into a similar situation to that of Syria and Iraq remains high. Particularly in light of increasing sectarian tensions, Sunni-backed Jihadi groups need little motivation to fight what they view as an un-Islamic government that has already declared war against their ideological bond to establish a caliphate whether it be in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya or soon Saudi Arabia.

So Yemen can soon witness foreign militants making their way into the country to fight the new government.

And perhaps this is what western powers are sowing in order to reap more Sunni-Shia conflict to keep the region in a political and intellectual declined state.

In order for the Houthi-backed government to avoid this, they must resist the temptation of jumping on “the war on terror” bandwagon and immediately defuse the rising sectarian tensions and avoid giving Jihadi groups a justification to wage attacks.

Yousef Mawry is a Yemeni-American citizen based in Sana’a Yemen covering news events in the region. He as 8 years of professional experience and his own media office where he produces, edits and directs short films and features.

You can follow Yousef on Twitter @Ymawryy

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