Home > News > Yemen's Houthis and Islamist republicanism under strain
224 views 17 min 0 Comment

Yemen's Houthis and Islamist republicanism under strain

- February 2, 2015

Supporters of Yemen’s Houthi movement gather at a rally in Sanaa, Yemen, Jan. 23. (Hani Mohammed/AP)
This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
A Houthi, an Islahi and an independent Islamist walked into a bar. Okay, actually, it was a conference room. It was 2012, and these three youth leaders from rival movements stood together across from a group of similarly diverse secular youth, debating the possibility of a madani (civil) state in Yemen built on an Islamic foundation. In that moment, they were what I call Islamist republicans, more than they were Shafai or Zaydi Muslims (let alone Sunni or Shiite), or members of any particular political organization. By this I mean that they shared an ideological convergence made possible by the upheavals of 2011. That solidarity has been largely (but not entirely) eroded by events over the past two years. But in that moment, those commitments were real and sensible in the context of Yemeni politics. The erosion of the concept of Islamist republicanism in Yemen over the past two years of “transition” has troubling implications for the ability to sustain many Yemenis’ dream of a civil state.
Yemen’s current spiraling crises can be read in light of the proxies and flows of interests outside of Yemen as much as within it. This is not to say that domestic politics aren’t primary – they establish the basic terrain of conflict, without a doubt. But since 2011, Yemen’s politics have been continually negotiated by a complex (often opaque) web of actors stretching from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia and Tehran to Washington and London. This has entailed both qualitative and quantitative shifts in the nature of foreign interest and action in Yemen, much of it driven by anxieties over or misunderstandings of Islamic republicanism. In the face of the transitional government’s resignation on Jan. 22, it became less clear than ever who is actually in charge of what in Yemen.
Following the dramatic “fall” of Sanaa in September 2014, many American and European analysts have offered explanations of Yemen’s political breakdown. These explanations point to the sectarian conflict between partisans of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), a long-standing staple of Yemen’s opposition politics and participant in the transitional government, and the militias of the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement originating in Yemen’s far Northern Saada province. As the Houthis successfully compelled the government to renegotiate the terms of the transitional agreement originally brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2011, American and European media framing has suggested that Yemen’s future (or at least the future of central state institutions) was being shaped by Shiite militants bent on eliminating their Sunni rivals. As Sheila Carapico and I, and several others, have argued, this was then and remains now a blunt oversimplification of sectarian dynamics that masks important institutional power-politics.
Analysis of the Houthi movement and its conflict with the Islah party has largely been characterized in terms of military capability or sectarian composition, not substantive ideology (at least beyond noting the Houthis’ anti-American rhetoric and slogan proclaiming “a curse on the Jews”). This has been a mistake, given that it is the Houthis’ substantive political claims that make its relationship with Islah so difficult to disentangle. As Jillian Schwedler argues in a forthcoming piece, it is dangerous to overemphasize nominal difference (in this case, in sect) over substantive difference (in access to institutional power, for example), especially when this leads analysts to overlook substantive convergence (in ideological claims).
What does it mean to say that Yemen experienced a convergence around Islamist republicanism? Republicanism has often been dismissed by scholars as a logic of governance in the Middle East and North Africa, owing in part to its discursive appropriation by populist authoritarian regimes. Islamic modernism, drawing upon incipient nationalisms in the late colonial period and seen as central to the development of contemporary Islamism, has been taken more seriously. What has not always registered, however, is that identifiably republican claims have been central to the ideological core of Islamic modernism. In recent decades, the concept of Islamic republicanism has been primarily associated with post-revolutionary Iran, and the ideological claims of the former supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in particular. This fails to appreciate the inherent republicanism among Islamists elsewhere in the region, an intellectual blind spot that has had some real effects.
Islamists in the Arab Middle East have often called for states that serve their citizens on the basis of accountable governance and at least some measure of political equality. They typically limit their calls for equality and citizenship in procedural terms such as electoral suffrage and due process, rather than more wide reaching forms of legal equality. In the 2000s, even such limited republican claims proved challenging to existing regimes, which were for the most part either insufficiently Islamic in orientation (as in the secular military regimes) or insufficiently accountable to citizens (as in the monarchies) or both. This made Islamist republicans a staple of the opposition landscape in most countries in the region in the 2000s and facilitated meaningful Islamist-secularist cooperation in protests and civil society in Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere.
The Arab uprisings of 2011 – and the suppression of Islamist republican dissent since then – highlight the strain that this specific ideological trend puts on regional regimes, particularly when it cuts across the putatively unbridgeable Sunni-Shiite divide. The uptick in sectarian mobilization today is, in part, a response to the suppression of just such convergence. While Islamists played little leadership role in the Arab uprisings, the logic of accountability that undergirded each of the populist movements was recognizable and resonant. But from Syria to Egypt to Yemen, when republicanism has been endorsed by Islamists as a specifically Islamic republicanism, it has faced dual resistance by Arab and non-Arab foreign actors and organizations alike.
On the one hand, the anti-republicans in the Gulf have typically managed the threat of republicanism through a combination of cooptation, coercion and the manipulation of a citizenship (or subjecthood) that has allowed the exclusion, suppression and ultimately denaturalization of republican dissent. On the other hand, European and American liberals who are critical of Islamism on the basis of its illiberalism have offered at best tepid support for their inclusion in the political process. The 2011 uprisings presented a challenge to both groups, bringing to the fore a populist demand for citizen accountability among people for whom Islam is one of several resonant mobilizational frames. Islamist republican claims were not in 2011 and never have been an automatic choice among mobilized Muslims, but neither have they been irrelevant. In “tipping the balance,” outside actors and institutions have been important arbiters of domestic political struggles.
It is the Houthi movement’s republican claims – which focus on accountable governance, legal equality and anti-corruption – that have helped attract prominent “Sunni” figures, such as the Shafai muftiof the city of Taiz, Saad bin Aqil, who has delivered Friday sermons to gatherings of Houthi loyalists. At its base, the Houthi movement makes a claim for limited government, and has resisted the consolidation of power that characterized the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and was repackaged by the 2011 GCC framework. The claim flows naturally from the Zaydi intellectual elite’s move in the 1980s and 1990s to adopt constitutionalism as a means of political survival as they faced encroachment from a populist Left and a Salafi right. In the 2000s, Zaydi thinkers like the recently-assassinated Muhammed Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil were at the forefront of a constitutionalist opposition, and their claims formed a critical bridge between the Houthis and republicans among Islah’s center, as well as others in the smaller but intellectually significant parties of the Left. Such thinkers – and the broader transformation of political discourse they helped to bring about through cross-sectarian and cross-partisan activism in the 2000s – helped shape a language of dissent that contributed to the 2011 uprising and made it possible for Islamist republicans of diverse stripe to recognize one another’s claims and the republican claims of their fellow (non-Islamist) citizens.
The work was not done only by Zaydi thinkers. The republican commitments of a cohort of Islah leaders have also been obvious, if nonetheless complex and dynamic. The Islah party cannot be glossed as a simple facsimile of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, though many party leaders studied in Egypt and are otherwise influenced by the movement. It would similarly be a mistake to consider the party a front for the wider Salafi movement, as some of its critics do, though the party counts prominent Salafis among its numbers. And then there are the tribal figures (some from well-known Zaydi families) who have served as kingmakers, adjudicating disputes between the Brothers and the Salafis, and between the party and the regime. But it is the Brothers who form the ideological core of the party, producing its public materials, crafting the speeches of most of its leaders and chairing and staffing its policymaking apparatus. This group has a longstanding commitment to republican governance, consistently articulating a version of limited government that would, in the eyes of one party member, produce a constitution that would be the envy of Plato.
So if the possibility of Houthis and Islahis converging around a shared republican agenda seems far-fetched today, it was not always so. Young members of both movements, as well as some independents, came out of the 2011 protest movement with an invigorated commitment to (civil, i.e., non-military, non-tribal) republicanism, though they differed from many prominent activists on whether secularism was a requisite attribute of such a republic. Young leaders from both groups professed to see no contradiction between the concept of a civil state, and a republican regime with an Islamist orientation. So what happened?
Two factors – one domestic, one regional – exerted a pull on this convergent republicanism in a way that has divided Yemen’s Islamist republicans. The GCC transitional mechanism, which was fronted by authoritarian regimes to promote stability, initially empowered Islah, and Houthi militants waged war on Salafi evangelists in Dammaj. Together, these two developments put tremendous strain on the Muslim Brothers in Islah, and left Islamists far more deeply polarized.
Both as a hedge against possible Iranian influence over the Houthis, and because Islah was the leading party in the existing opposition coalition, the GCC transitional framework apportioned governing power to Islah and excluded the Houthis. Meanwhile, the framework failed to deliver on the anti-corruption or transitional justice demands made by Houthis, which helped them to retain their relevance among Yemeni citizens. Escalating violence between Houthis and Salafis also unfolded in Dammaj, around the issue long-standing issue of Salafi evangelism and cultural encroachment. This fighting led to an exodus of thousands of internally displaced Salafis who recongregated in Sanaa. Though these Salafis are not necessarily Islahis – many are not even Yemeni – they have strained the possibilities for convergence and contributed to an escalating rhetoric of sectarian animus. A bete noire for centrist Brothers, Yemen’s Salafis have little institutional power under the transitional agreement and have piggybacked on the party, leaving it the most obvious target for Houthis excluded by that agreement and eager to play a more direct role in reconstituting power in a post-Saleh Yemen.
Meanwhile, Gulf countries’ toleration of Islah became more difficult to sustain in the aftermath of the coup against Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the subsequent suppression of Muslim Brothers there and in the Gulf. The Houthis’ move into Sanaa in September 2014 and forcible rewriting of the transitional agreement was countenanced not because external actors recognized their republican claims, but as a means of clipping Islah’s wings. Yet it is precisely the Houthi movement’s political claims – and its resistance to details of the proposed federal restructuring in Yemen’s draft constitution – that escalated the most recent crisis.
International “openness” toward the Houthis in September, while legible in terms of dual Gulf and European and American anxiety about (Islahi) Islamist republicanism, has had disastrous consequences, just as the earlier exclusion of Houthis from the governing compact did. As the International Crisis Group’s most recent report suggests, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the only beneficiary of the January 2015 crisis. No matter how poorly conceived the GCC framework may have been, the events in September communicated clearly that agreements could be rewritten by force, a process now underway again. This time, however, Yemen stands more polarized in sectarian terms, with Islamist republicans from Islah and the Houthi movement unlikely, if not unable, to realize their substantive convergence. Understanding the processes that “undid” this possibility is essential to any hope of its recuperation.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” (I.B. Tauris, 2013) and other work on opposition politics in Yemen.