OP-ED

What is Next for the Houthis?

National Yemen
By Arnaud MAUREL
(Student at SciencesPo and U.C. Berkeley).
for National Yemen

When the Houthis swept into the Yemeni capital, it took many observers by surprise. If we consider that they had previously been at war with the Saleh government since 2004, this astonishment certainly demonstrated a poor general knowledge on this country. Misunderstood and squeezed into incongruous frameworks, the Houthi identity should however be searched in Yemeni specifies. It is a prerequisite to grasp its complex nature and untangle the objectives associated with it. Here, the 2004-2010 conflict is central to understand the internal-building process at stake in this group.
As this war proved it, the Houthi identity is still under construction. Externally, it is still particularly malleable and able to be morphed by their environment. Some of its features like tribalism fundamentally arose from the very Yemeni social make-up whereas others have been shaped by temporary  pressures, such as governmental policies of religious stigmatization. This protean identity has however not only been shaped by external forces and is also an internal phenomenon. Aware of the diversity of their supporters, the Houthis keep indeed sending different messages in order to connect with several audiences.

This identity flexibility is thus undoubtedly a strength that allows them to cast their nets wide. Nonetheless, the segmentation of their supporters may hinder the Houthis’ capacity to turn into a formal organization or worse, may lead to their implosion. I shall here discuss this intrinsic tension between unity and diversity within the Houthi movement.

First of all, each Houthi identity component aims at a specific group. Depicted as defenders of Zaydism and Islam, the Houthis can connect both with local populations worried about the destruction of their cultural heritage and with transnational Shia or jihadi networks mobilized by the confessionalization of the issue. Portrayed as defenders of the Zaydi heartland against foreign forces, the Houthis speak the very language of the tribes whose territorial inviolability cements ancestral logics of honor. Described as fighting the recurring Saudi intrusions, the Houthis also pose themselves as defenders of the broader Yemeni soil and sovereignty and have gained impetus beyond their local stronghold. Openly concerned with not being associated with terrorist groups which target civilians and publicly supporting the country’s unity – through allegiance to the Yemeni Republic and constitution – they have attracted more politically inclined supporters such as the educated diaspora. However conscious that this defensive message will not connect with an emotionally engaged local base, the Houthis have finally developed an image of mujahedeen whose aggressive and brave figure appeals to young, desperate and extremist audiences.

From local to international actors, from moderates to extremists and from religious to tribal supporters, this heterogeneity raises the following question: will the movement have the capacity to evolve into a more united organization?  The challenge is twofold.

Firstly, the Houthis need to define a clear ideology that transcends their opposition to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They still do not have an official denomination and their current designation restricts their fight to support the Houthi family. We can imagine a founding text modelled on the 2009 Hezbollah Charter that could include a clarification regarding their degree of adherence to Zaydism. Part of this issue will also be the choice to state (or not) their Shia identity. On the one hand, doing so could integrate them into a large transnational network and break their current isolation. On the other hand, it could deeply undermine their nationalist message if they are seen as Iranian proxies.
Then, the Houthis need to confirm their strategic internal articulation. Their guerilla strategy has so far demonstrated a loose relationship between units and an extremely decentralized way of governing where local leaders have kept significant autonomy. These scattered and guerilla-type organizations have allowed them to efficiently harass conventional forces in an asymmetric war. It could however hinder the Houthis’ capacity to normalize their actions in a unified manner and they have a long way to go in order to gain organizational unity. All the more that it is this very nebulous shape that has allowed them to send contradictory messages and to maintain non-accountability for strategic defeats.

In spite of these arguments, the Houthis are not as unstable as they seem to be. Externally, Saudi Arabia seems to be willing to act in Yemen on the long-run and will thus constitute a lasting Antichrist cementing this mosaic of actors. Internally, a sense of groupness has arisen from the turmoil that the Houthis have had to face. Fighters have indeed developed a primary sense of solidarity based on a shared history and group rituals such as holidays and cult of martyrdom have become more prevalent.   On a more strategic level, the Houthis’ alliance with Ali Abdallah Saleh will certainly influence their internal organization through cooperation with professional fighters.  In this regard, the degree of integration of military forces into the Houthis (or reciprocally of the Houthis into the former regular army) be an interesting indicator for evaluating their internal strategic mutations.
Considering the fragmented nature of their basis, any major transformation would be encouraged from the top through leadership. This leadership will however have to master local channels to make command flow better. If Abdul-Malik al-Houthi has expressed a certain reluctance to develop normalized political actions, it also signifies that a real debate is taking place within the Houthi movement on this subject and their capacity to develop a political party is real.  The Houthi family indeed has a legacy of participatory politics and an already existing political platform (Hizb al-Haqq).

The empowerment of former Houthi deputies will primarily be an internal phenomenon but the international community can externally shape this transformation by for instance fostering and protecting tribal mediations. Considering the quantity of weapons in the region, creating a political party will not mean giving up armed fight and disarmament will be one of the main challenges for Yemen. We can however imagine a short term outcome à-la-Hezbollah where “separate” political and military wings of the group have been distinguished.