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The limits of the 'sectarian' framing in Yemen

- September 25, 2014

A Houthi rebel holds an RPG as he rides a truck passing through a checkpoint near the presidential palace in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Wednesday (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
It was 2005 when my Yemeni friends first started talking seriously about their fears that the Houthis would march on the capital of Sanaa. The Houthis were never closer than the nearby province of Amran back then. There was a media blackout, and most of our information came from journalist friends who were in and around the city of Saada, then the center of the conflict, distributing news via SMS. Information was not the only thing the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh sought (and failed) to control: Humanitarian agencies had no way to reach the civilians who were bearing the brunt of the conflict between government forces and Houthi militants. In a harbinger of things to come, a UNICEF employee told me that the only way he could get supplies to Saada was by partnering with the Islah Charitable Society (ICS), a local aid agency tied to Yemen’s largest Islamist party. He complained that ICS was padding the books and inflating the numbers of people who had been displaced to gain resources for its wider evangelical work, but he noted that it was the only non-governmental agency that he knew of that was granted a permit to work amid the stranded civilians. It was in ways like this that the Saleh regime manipulated the “sectarian” politics of Northern Yemen, seeking to ensure that the two groups were too distracted by each other to turn their attention elsewhere.
That, of course, was not a wholly successful strategy. Over the past decade, there have been at least half a dozen military campaigns with the Houthis, a secessionist movement in the South, the relocation of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, a popular uprising that lasted 11 months, a fracturing of the armed forces, an externally-brokered transitional agreement, a dramatic escalation in U.S. drone attacks in different parts of the country, and a National Dialogue Conference theoretically designed to put all the pieces back together. So, why think of this as sectarian war? The Houthi’s march on Sanaa in September cannot be easily glossed as “sectarian” just because they are Zaydi Shiites, and most (though not all) Islahis are Sunnis. The existence of nominal difference is not by itself a compelling causal story.
The fact that the Houthis are Zaydis does not mean that their movement is aimed exclusively or even primarily at establishing a Zaydi political order, reinstituting the kind of imamate that ruled Northern Yemen for hundreds of years (though some critics will tell you so). Similarly, the fact that Islah’s membership is predominantly Sunni doesn’t mean it is working to reestablish the caliphate, or even that it is willing to cooperate with those transnational movements that would, though its detractors may allege this. Instead, the conflict that pits the Houthis against Islah is one several decades in the making, and rests as much in the structure of the Yemeni North, the hierarchies of power and privilege among Zaydis themselves, and a state apparatus that sought to manipulate them.
Charles Schmitz recently contributed an excellent overview of the development of the Houthi movement as a political force. Additionally, the work of anthropologists like Gabrielle von Bruck and Shelagh Weir on the cultural politics of Zaydi/Islahi tension in the North is useful. While their field research mainly predates the Houthi movement as such, it outlines the dislocating impact of republican ideology in the North from the 1970s, and two interrelated developments that form a subtext to the current conflict. In “Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition,” Von Bruck maps the ways in which Hashemites (descendants of the Prophet, from whom Zaydi leaders have historically been chosen) were maligned as “feudal” by new republican leaders and the ways in which Sanaani Hashemite families consequently worked to refashion central Zaydi religious precepts as supportive of constitutional rule and accountable governance, fitting religious concepts into the discourse of the developing state. Weir’s book, “A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen,” documents the efforts of Sunni evangelists (who would ultimately align with Islah) to make use of this republican critique of hierarchy to recruit or “convert” low-status Zaydis in the far North, biting in to the core Zaydi demographic base. As constitutional checks on presidential authority and more general political accountability were undermined by Saleh in Sanaa and his regime supported the expansion of Islah-oriented schools to advance Sunni recruitment in the North, these new Hashemite discourses of accountability became more evidently oppositional. The residue of this ideological refashioning is evident in the Houthi project.
So when I say that this conflict can’t be glossed as sectarian, I don’t mean to suggest that religious conviction is irrelevant to the Houthi movement or its relationship to Islah or to the Yemeni government. Instead, it is important to investigate the meaning of “sectarian” concepts of good governance and opposition to corruption, and question whether these are (or, more to the point, are not) consistent with existing institutions and governing practices by Yemen’s transitional government.
It took a decade for the Houthis to march on Sanaa, but before they did so, they also sat in its square, participating in a broad-based social movement that called itself the “Change Revolution.” Easily forgotten is that they did so alongside many members of Islah. Over the 11 months of Yemen’s popular uprising, Houthis and Islahis managed to cooperate on a number of issues, particularly outside of top leadership circles. In the year that followed, Houthis and Islahis were co-participants in workshops for Yemeni youth, where they disagreed on principled grounds, but also carved out spaces of agreement on core issues. To be clear, this was not an easy relationship, but it was also not one characterized by implacable sectarian animus.
The transitional agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and endorsed by the United Nations as the blueprint for a new Yemen included provisions that overrepresented Islah and excluded the Houthis from the transitional “national unity” government. It did little to address key anti-corruption demands central to Houthi and non-Houthi protesters alike. It also deferred essential transitional justice mechanisms that might have brought redress for the brutality of past military campaigns against the Houthis and civilians in the North. It moved instead to a direct (and uncontested) presidential election of someone close to ousted president Saleh and to a National Dialogue Conference that further overrepresented Islah, even while cementing the importanceof the Houthi conflict as one of the key questions facing the country.
So when the Houthis marched on the capital – a march that was not entirely military, but also included large-scale, nonviolent mobilization of protesters in the weeks that preceded it – there was no reason to interpret this as a march on Sunnis, sectarian rhetoric notwithstanding. Instead, it appears to be a campaign to target Islahis as major contenders for institutional power, designed as a renegotiation of the transitional framework. Islahi media outlets like Suhail TV have been taken off the air (though it appears that the main Houthi Web site may have been hacked by Suhail viewers). The homes of prominent Islahis have been seized or destroyed, as has the home of General Ali Muhsin, who oversaw the bulk of the military campaigns against the Houthis over the past decade, and later defected to the opposition during the 2011 uprising. It appears that his troops bore the brunt of the conflict with the Houthis in September, while President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi ordered troops from other commands to stand down.
The ceasefire agreement, rich in detail and very quickly agreed, focuses primarily on renegotiating powersharing to increase the representation of Houthis (and the Southern Movement, also a thorn in Islah’s side), and to outline concrete benchmarks for anti-corruption and economic reforms. It calls for the quick establishment of a technocratic committee of economic advisers whose recommendations will be binding on the new government. It is not focused on the kind of “culture war” issues that might characterize a sectarian conflict, but rather seeks to achieve several genuinely popular reforms sidelined by the transitional government. That it was accomplished at the point of a gun speaks as much to the failures of the transitional framework as to Houthi ideology. Widespread dissatisfaction with slow progress of the transitional process may help to explain why so many foreign actors have been quick to support its renegotiation by backing the ceasefire terms.
Worrisome for the medium term stability of Sanaa, however, is the question of Hadi’s relationship to the Houthis. The earliest ceasefire benchmark for a new government has already passed, suggesting that all may not proceed smoothly. While the Houthis may have helped to conveniently clip the wings of Yemen’s largest Islamist party in ways that help Hadi consolidate his own position, now that the deed is done, how long before he decides that the Houthis are more trouble than they are worth? After all, as vice president, Hadi was at former president Saleh’s knee when he first used Islah to hem in the Yemeni Socialist Party, and then turned on Islah itself in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Houthis will need to quickly cultivate allies from other corners of the political field if they are to avoid a repetition of that storied past. Their window for credibly doing so becomes narrower as each benchmark is delayed.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon,” and a member of the executive committee of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies. She is an associate professor of political science at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.