Houthis take center stage

Yesterday’s political powers are no longer what they used to be – gone are the days when Yemen’s political powers could (relatively) quietly spread their influence. In the wake of the Arab Spring, however, groups are doing whatever it takes to define their presence on Yemen’s future political landscape.

Before a far-reaching audience, the Houthis capitalized on an idea – that of celebrating the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday out loud and in public – which could manage to reach past prejudices and reach people’s hearts. While Houthis have continued to make political inroads, they capitalized on an opportunity to reach past the merely political.

As it happened, they set themselves up as the champions of the Prophet Mohammed; and they did so at the expense of the government and President Hadi in particular, who was chided for not providing a stadium venue for the celebrations – and yes, as Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi said in a video message, even as Americans are given open access to Yemen’s most important military bases.

That their idea – that of brining hundreds of thousands – into the public sphere in celebration and on this day…well, it was unprecedented in Yemen. As it turned out, it was also a huge success. And at the center of this massive success was a group which has at times lacked charisma. Yet, it was the Houthis, whose latest big moment came not in Sa’ada but in the capital city of Sana’a.

When the U.S. Ambassador said the National Dialogue would proceed with – or without – the participation of certain parties, it was very easy to perceive that the Houthis were very much on his mind. Yet the question on the mind of people who witnessed the simply massive turnout at the birthday celebration was, inevitably: how many more followers can Al-Houthi attract to his side? While it would be hard to predict how such dynamics will shape the coming months, it seems quite clear that the Houthis won’t remain tucked away up north. Rather, it seems, one should very much expect the Houthis to be waiting for just the right moment to again enter the main stage.