Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 10
program. Some groups fighting the government, though referred to as Huthis, appear motivated by multiple, mostly non-ideological factors having little in common with the leadership’s proclaimed grievances. The May 2008 fighting in Bani Hushaysh, a mere twenty kilometres north of Sanaa, is an apt illustration. Depicted by both government and Huthi leadership as a rebel offensive, the events arguably were more akin to a local land ownership conflict between tribesmen and a prominent military figure.26
According to an independent observer, insurgents can be divided into four groups: a minority embracing a clear, well-articulated ideology, maintaining symbolic or political ties with Iran and rallying around anti-Western slogans; a small but distinct set seeking to defend Zaydi and Hashemite identity; groups of armed men with purely financial motivations; and a majority, tribesmen defending their families and villages against state violence.27
A. Who Are the Huthis?
Like the vast majority of the northern highlands population, including the president, Huthis are Zaydis. Unlike most, they are revivalists, who believe that Zaydi identity is threatened by a dominant Sunni or even Wahhabi identity.28 Badr al-Din al-Huthi, Husein’s father and a famous Saada cleric, advocated revivalism since the 1970s and published numerous treatises denouncing Wahhabism. Other family members followed suit by opening religious teaching
26 Al-Sharea (Sanaa independent weekly), 7 June 2008.
27 Crisis Group interview, Samy Ghalib, editor in chief of al-Nida independent weekly, Sanaa, 8 January 2009.
28 Wahhabism – itself a controversial term – emerged in the mid-eighteenth century in what became Saudi Arabia. It is based on a strict interpretation of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence that emphasises the unity of God (tawhid) and rejects the Hashemites’ claim to power. Salafism is a Sunni movement that seeks to revive “original” Islam, drawing on the so-called pious ancestors (salaf al-salih). It emerged in the second half of the twentieth century and is characterised in religious matters by a desire to transcend the four traditional Sunni schools of jurisprudence (Shafeism, Hanafism, Hanbalism and Malikism) and politically by a distrust of party politics and stigmatisation of Shiite Islam. While not automatically violent, certain fringes of the wider Salafi movement, labelled jihadi, have influenced al-Qaeda-type groups. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°37, Understanding Islamism, 2 March 2005, pp. 13-14; Laurent Bonnefoy, “Deconstructing Salafism in Yemen”, CTC Sentinel, vol. 2, no. 2, February 2009; and Crisis Group Middle East Report N°31, Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who are the Islamists?, 21 September 2004, p. 1.
institutes, writing books and proselytising.
The Huthi family also are Hashemites, which means they do not derive their legitimacy from affiliation with any particular tribe. Hashemites are said to have arrived in Yemen only after Islam’s advent, mediating between local tribes; as relative latecomers, their claim to an authentic Yemeni identity sometimes is contested, though Zaydi Hashemites ruled parts or all of Yemen for over 1,000 years, until the September 1962 demise of the North Yemen imamate.29 The country then began to be dominated by individuals and groups of tribal origin, many of whom hailed from Zaydi regions. Most Hashemites adapted to the new regime, many directly supporting it and accepting their own political decline. A minority sought exile, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UK.
With unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 and the subsequent emergence of a multiparty system, Zaydi revivalists found new means of political expression. The creation of the al-Haqq party and of the Believing Youth, an al-Haqq offshoot set up in the mid-1990s, reflected new Zaydi dynamism. During Yemen’s first multiparty elections in 1993, Husein al-Huthi and Abdallah al-Ruzami, a tribesman who also came from Saada governorate, were elected to parliament as al-Haqq members and served single four-year terms. From 1997 onwards, Husein al-Huthi focused his activities on the Believing Youth in Saada. At the time, he enjoyed the government’s
29 In 1926, Imam Yahya (the religious and political ruler since 1904) established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen and proclaimed himself king (malik). Subsequently, particularly during the civil war that followed the 1962 republican revolution, the imam’s supporters were labelled royalists.