Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 15
(khuruj)56 against the central state and declare the president unfit for power”.57 In turn, the army purportedly was compelled to wage a defensive war on the state’s behalf. Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister in charge of security and defence, explained: “No government wants war and ours, like any other, wants its citizens to live in peace. Since 2004, there have been various efforts and as many as seven or eight mediation committees, but these all failed. Military action was a last resort”.58
As described by the government, the Huthis have been spreading a fundamentalist religious creed, reflecting a shift from moderate Zaydism to Jaafarism (Twelver Shiism). Ali al-Anissi, head of the Bureau of National Security, said, “Husein al-Huthi and Abdallah al-Ruzami imported a lot of festivals and practices coming from Twelver Shias, and this has provoked tension”.59 Most recently, in March 2009, Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi used the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid al-nabawi, a
56 Use of the term khuruj (literally: “coming out”) is not innocent. Zaydism explicitly endorses revolt against oppressive rulers (khuruj ala al-hakim al-dhalim). During the imamate’s millennium-long history, revolt was a legitimate means for Hashemites to gain power. By invoking this concept, the government sought to underscore the rebel’s purported goal of restoring the imamate.
57 Crisis Group interview, GPC official and member of the Consultative Council, Sanaa, 12 January 2009. According to a senior government official, “it is evident that the rebels are well organised and well trained and have the capacity to confront the military”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 7 January 2009.
58 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
59 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009. Among these rituals, the annual Ghadir Khumm festival has particular symbolic significance. Held each year on the eighteenth day of the Islamic calendar’s month of Dhu al-Hija, it is the subject of considerable controversy between Sunnis and Shiites. It celebrates Ali’s supposed designation as the Prophet’s authentic successor and thus rejects the legitimacy of Abu Bakr, the first caliph Sunnis recognise. It thus could be seen as reaffirming the Hashemites’ claim to power, as Ali was the Prophet’s son-in-law, from whom they claim descent, while Abu Bakr was only a companion of the Prophet. The celebration was abandoned after the revolution but reemerged in the 1990s amid Zaydi revivalism. Since 2004, the authorities have repeatedly sought to ban what some described as a “festival of Huthi sympathisers” (see Laurent Bonnefoy, “Les relations religieuses transnationales entre le Yémen et l’Arabie Saoudite: Un salafisme importé?”, PhD dissertation, Paris, 2007, p. 356, quoting a district security head in Lahj governorate) or a celebration of Hashemite rule tantamount to “an assertion of the Huthis’ rejection of democracy”. Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.
controversial celebration criticised by many Sunni scholars) to mobilise his supporters.60 Pointing at such events, critics accuse the Huthis of sectarianism and undermining national unity.61 In the words of a ruling party member who emphasised his own Zaydi Hashemite identity, “Husein al-Huthi hijacked Zaydism just like Osama bin Laden hijacked Islam”.62 The Huthis also have been criticised for seeking to enforce new, more rigid social rules in areas under their control, such as Saada.63
To bolster its international case, the government labelled the rebels as terrorists, accusing them of preparing attacks against Western interests, planning to kidnap foreign diplomats, spraying acid on unveiled women, poisoning water reserves, murdering officials and bombing public places; several, including a journalist and editor, have been put on trial on charges of plotting such acts. Some were sent to the special criminal court set up to deal with terrorists in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks.64 The government reportedly claimed to have asked the UN to place the Believing Youth on its list of terrorist organisations65 but apparently never formally conveyed the demand. Accusations aside, there is no evidence linking the Huthis to terrorist groups operating in Yemen, such as al-Qaeda, or to attacks carried out against targets outside the immediate Saada war
60 Al-Diyar (Sanaa independent weekly), 15 March 2009.
61 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.
62 Crisis Group interview, intellectual and member of the General People’s Congress, Sanaa, 13 January 2009.
63 An international NGO country director said, “the Huthis have imposed very strict rules in the regions they control. For example, they ban male teachers in girls’ schools. As a result, girls can no longer study”, since there are few female teachers. However, “at the same time, they appear to play a positive role in resolving longstanding local conflicts. Through such actions, they gain the community’s trust”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 13 January 2009.
64 Crisis Group interview, human rights activist, 5 January 2009. See also Almotamar.net (General People’s Congress information website), 14 June 2007; “Yemen”, Amnesty International annual report 2007. In June 2008, a special court sentenced Abd-al-Karim al-Khaywani, former editor-in-chief of al-Shura weekly (mouthpiece of the Union of Popular Forces, a Zaydi party) and a journalist well-known for criticising the government, to six years in prison for rebel ties. Al-Khaywani, who earlier had been imprisoned for writing about the Saada war, was released by presidential order in September 2008. In January 2009, a court confirmed his sentence but he remained free. News Yemen (independent information website), 31 January 2009. President Salih cancelled the sentence two months later.
65 Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009.