How the misunderstanding of the Houthi movement fuels the conflict.
By Bruno Schmidt-Feuerheerd
The Saudi-led military strikes against Yemen left about more 1,000 people dead and over than 115 children among them. According to the common belief, this is part of another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for the hegemony in the region, with the Houthis, a “shi’a militia”, being the Iranian agent. Neglecting the differences between the Houthis’ shi’a tradition of Zaydism and Twelver Shi’ism of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, Western commentators aim to construct a religious fundament as explanation for a domestic political conflict. The simplistic dichotomy between Sunnis and Shi’is regarding most conflicts in the Middle East serves the classification to assign any group to either “Shi’a Iran” or “Sunni Saudi-Arabia”. By overstating the sectarian tensions within Islam – which are certainly existing, but politically exploited and in the rarest cases the origin of the conflict – the political and socio-economic dimensions of conflicts are given the backseat. This is especially true for Yemen, which has been considered a role model for the various sects of Islam getting along with each other. It is absolutely crucial to understand why the Houthis are rather an egalitarian movement than an Iranian-proxy Shi’a militia. How we frame the problem determines what solution we strive for.
Saleh, Hadi & the Houthis
The Houthis are devotees of Zaydism, an offshoot of shi’ite Islam which encompasses around 40% of Yemen’s population. Although Zayidis are a country-wide minority, they constitute a majority in the North of Yemen. The sectarian distinction became important when Sana’a supported (Sunni) Salafi religious institutes to proselytize and persecute the Zaydis in the 1980s. This religious attack was accompanied by political exclusion and marginalization which constitutes a major part of the underlying problems of the current war, as will be elaborated below.
The Zaydi tradition in Yemen is by no means a story of suppression as Zaydi “Imams” had ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years up to the military coup in 1962. The comprehensive involvement of outside powers in the subsequent civil war draws a parallel to today’s situation. Thus, the question who composes the legitimate government is especially in Yemen an historic one. To analyze the current events and classify the relevant groups accordingly, we have to go back in time. Who the Houthis are today is fundamentally determined by the character of former President Saleh’s political economic patronage system (1978-2012).
Saleh had successfully diminished the opposition as he forced them to accept his highly personalized patronage system. Any individual who was striving for change in politics had to become part of the corrupt patronage system. Saleh’s inclusive attempt led to the Yemeni paradox of lacking political representation of the broader public despite the existence of various political parties. This proved true in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings as the established “opposition-parties” had quickly engrossed the protest movement and marginalized the protestors on the streets. Thus, Saleh’s patronage system gained momentum after the Arab Uprisings as the political-economic elite opted for maintaining the status quo and its privileges, preventing demanded reforms of a corrupt state. With the political opposition comprehensively dismantled, the protesters were facing an resolvable organizational problem, being unable to utilize political structures and experience for their goals.
Inertia had protected the system, even when Saleh was replaced by his vice president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi in November 2011. The subsequent GCC-brokered transitional plan between Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) had excluded the disenfranchised groups, such as the youth, representatives of the southern hirak-movement or the Houthis, from negotiations. Even though the National Dialogue, a report containing 1850 recommendations which was concluded in January 2014, was considered a great, inclusive success, the subsequent exclusion of these groups from Hadi’s transitional government brought about the rebalance of the infamous patronage system rather than a radical change.
Against this background, the Houthis gained momentum. For a long time, they have described their grievances as based on the religious oppression through Saudi-financed Sunni interference and Saleh’s support for the US intervention in Iraq in 2003, which they heavily opposed, leading to a war between Sana’a and Houthis. The core aspect of the political platform of the Houthis has been the fight against political exclusion and systematic socio-economic disadvantages for many Yemenis. Therefore, the major protests in 2014 had been carried by the demand to reinstate the fuel subsidies, which had been cut substantially in late July 2014.
To sum up, the success of the Houthis is not to be blamed on sectarian tensions – which had not been significant in Yemen so far – but on the inability of the government to fulfill the demands of the Yemeni people regardless of their sect, to improve the economic situation and to constitute a more representative form of government.
As opponents of war, demanding more socio-economic equality, a fair political voice, and religious freedom from foreign intervention, the Houthis are far from being an Iranian proxy but articulate demands which are fundamental to the success of the political transition of the country. However, by forcing the categories of an Iranian-Saudi proxy war on the country, the Houthis, in the need of allies, have to choose sides. Given the alliance between the Hadi government with Saudi-Arabia and the United States, it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy that the Houthis will find a potent ally in Tehran. Thus, even though sectarianism has never been the origin of the conflict in Yemen, once it had been successfully constructed, it may unfold its powerful, country-dividing centrifugal force.