Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 13
through missiles and tanks”.43 Saada remained on the margins, largely ignored by the government and developing solely thanks to commerce with neighbouring Saudi Arabia on the one hand and the fertility of its land on the other. In the early 1990s, a Zaydi intellectual recalled that the only hospital in Saada at the time had been built with Saudi money and that the city had waited more than twenty years after the revolution to be visited by a North Yemeni president.44 Alienated from a state that deprived them of their former status and failed to attend to their region’s security or economic development, some Zaydi revivalists – notably the Huthis – emerged as key regime opponents.
Zaydi revivalist opposition to the regime was emboldened by several other factors. The imamate’s fall had left the religious group in deep crisis, as its scholars faced the difficult task of reviving their legitimacy in the absence of an imam.45 Doctrinal adaptation was facilitated by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that provided Shiites throughout the Muslim world with a positive model; at the same time, Yemeni Zaydis saw the rise of a new generation of scholars and militants who were not as marked by the civil war’s legacy. Scholars established Zaydi teaching institutes, mainly in Sanaa and Saada, and publishers released new editions of Zaydi treatises.
The founding of al-Haqq and the reactivation of the Union of Popular Forces provided revivalists with means of political expression. In the 1990s, prominent al-Haqq-affiliated Zaydi scholars signed a manifesto arguing that the ruler or imam no longer needed to be a Hashemite. Badr al-Din al-Huthi and other leading Saada-based scholars dissented and split. Husein al-Huthi and others46 created the Believing Youth, seeking to revive Zaydi activism through education and proselytising.
Zaydi revival around Saada also came as a reaction to the spread of Salafism, spearheaded by Muqbil al-Wadii, a Saudi-educated Saada cleric. In the late 1970s, after his expulsion from Saudi Arabia as a result of political activities, al-Wadii established his own institute, Dar al-Hadith, in Dammaj, on Saada’s outskirts. It grew rapidly, educating thousands of Yemeni and foreign students and spawned other such institutes throughout the
43 Al-Nida (Sanaa independent weekly), 30 March 2005.
44 Muhammad al-Saidi, Saada limadha? (Beirut, undated).
45 Gabriele Vom Bruck, “Being a Zaydi in the absence of an Imam”, in Rémy Leveau, Franck Mermier and Udo Steinbach, eds., Le Yémen contemporain (Paris, 1999).
46 These included Abd-al-Karim Jadban, Muhammad Azzan and Salih Habra. Crisis Group interview, Hasan Zayd, al-Haqq secretary general, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
country. Fierce competition with Zaydis ensued, provoking what a Western scholar described as a “clash of fundamentalisms”.47 In the early 1990s, Zaydi scholars issued pamphlets denouncing Salafi “intrusion” in Zaydism’s cradle and blaming Saudi Arabia for aggressively exporting Wahhabism.48 Explaining why the Huthis set up the Believing Youth, Yahya al-Huthi said:
Our main reason for action is to fight Wahhabism. There has been a cultural and intellectual war between Zaydism and Wahhabism since the revolution in the 1960s. The Yemeni government is looking for financial help from Saudi Arabia and so in exchange it has favoured the spread of Wahhabism.49
Anti-Zaydi and anti-Hashemite prejudice, especially among certain Sunni Islamist intellectuals (Salafis and Muslim Brothers), is particularly worrying. It both threatens the growing convergence between sectarian identities50 and undermines post-civil war reconciliation efforts. The January 2003 death in a car accident – viewed by some as suspect – of Yahya al-Mutawakkil, a former interior minister and prominent politician, left the Hashemites without representation among the ruling elite. Moreover, as the war progressed, stigmatisation of Hashemites and Zaydis worsened; during the fifth round, Hashemite
47 Shelagh Weir, “Clash of Fundamentalisms”, Middle East Report, no. 204 (1997).
48 Amin Abu Zayd, Al-wahhabiyya wa khataruha ala mustaqbal al-Yaman al-siyasi (Beirut, 1991).
49 Crisis Group telephone interview, Yahya al-Huthi, Berlin, 3 February 2009.
50 The Salafist monthly magazine al-Muntada published several articles targeting Zaydism. One, which focused on the “second Huthi rebellion”, was entitled “So that we do not forget: the secret plans to spread the Iranian revolution”. In the same issue, Abd-al-Aziz al-Dubaii wrote: “If the armed forces have a great role to play in eradicating the Huthi sedition (fitna), the intellectual forces must eradicate its roots”. Al-Muntada, April 2005. In 2008 the Salafist al-Kalima al-Tayyiba Centre issued a pamphlet entitled “Zaydism in Yemen: An Open Discussion”, which focused on Zaydism’s theological errors and proximity to Twelver Shiites. See Muhammad bin Muhammad al-Mahdi, “Al-Zaydiyya fi al-Yaman: Hiwar Maftuh”, Sanaa, 2008. In 2007, Islamist intellectuals, including Abd-al-Fattah al-Batul, adviser to the governor of Ibb, established the Nashwan bin Said al-Himyari Centre, which has highlighted the Zaydi Imamate’s “treachery”. Ahmad Muhammad al-Hadiri, Tarikh al-aimma al-hadawiya fi al-Yaman: al-fikr wa al-tatbiq (Sanaa, 2007). Nashwan bin Said al-Himyari was a twelfth century Yemeni poet known for his anti-Hashemite positions. Samy Dorlian, “Les reformulations identitaires”, op. cit., pp. 167-168.