Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 31
VI. building a lasting peace
Belligerents as well as independent observers agree on one thing: under current conditions, a sixth round is only a matter of time. The prospect of parliamentary elections in April 2009 was cause for some relief; many observers believed the government would wish to avoid renewed confrontation ahead of polling. On 22 February, however, President Salih and the opposition jointly announced a two-year postponement of the vote, removing a possible obstacle to war.197 Fears heightened as rumours swirled of a $1 billion arms deal with Russia which, if true, would reinvigorate the army.198 At the same time, Huthi leaders demonstrated their ability to mobilise large numbers. During the January Gaza war, they staged anti-Israel demonstrations in Saada replete with the Believing Youth’s standard slogans. On the Prophet’s birthday in March, rebels organised a rally reportedly attended by tens of thousands and at which Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi denounced Yemen’s alliance with the U.S., warning the government it would lose if it were to launch an attack.199
Also in March, rebel spokesman Salih Habra declared that “the war is in no one’s interest” but went on to accuse the government of preparing a sixth round.200 Two weeks later the army’s official media outlet referred to the Huthis as a “seditionist and subversive group” and charged them with pursuing “terrorist activities” and “oppressing communities and households”.201 Serious skirmishes broke out in early April between rebels and army units in Saada’s Ghamir and Razih districts202 and persisted for weeks. Each party promptly accused the other of violating the peace agreement. Several steps are required to forestall renewed war.
A. Bridging the Sectarian Gap
The portrayal of Huthi militants, both in the media and official discourse, as agents of a wider Shiite conspiracy to take over the country is largely unfounded and – in the context of deepening regional sectarian polarisation – dangerous. Instead, the state should renew efforts undertaken by the republic in the
197 Al-Hayat, 26 February 2009.
198 Reuters, 28 February 2009. The army denied the rumour. 26 September, 26 February 2009.
199 Marib Press, 10 March 2009.
200 Ishtiraki.net (Yemeni Socialist Party information website), 15 March 2009.
201 26 September, 2 April 2009.
202 News Yemen, 2 April 2009.
late 1960s to more systematically integrate Zaydis and Hashemites into the political system. It also should discourage media outlets from fanning social or religious prejudice. Finally, it ought to take steps to ensure representation of Hashemites and Zaydi revivalist figures in higher government and ruling party circles.
Although Zaydi revivalist fears of Salafi or Wahhabi attempts to eradicate them are exaggerated, they contain a kernel of truth and have led to a self-defence reflex. For the state, the appropriate response should be not exclusion and repression but accommodation and inclusion. This would entail a concerted effort to stress positive aspects and contributions to Yemeni identity of Zaydi and Hashemite histories as well as to incorporate Zaydi religious interpretations in textbooks. Public radio and television might, for example, regularly broadcast conferences or sermons by Zaydi scholars, report their views and even encourage cross-sectarian conferences and ecumenical sermons.203
B. Reintegrating the Huthis into Politics
Five years into the conflict, it remains difficult to identify the rebels’ objectives. Huthi leaders never spelled them out clearly, often limiting themselves to rejecting government claims. Failure to articulate a coherent political platform has encouraged rumours of secret political and sectarian projects as well as of foreign manipulation. If they are to facilitate resolution of this conflict, the rebels will have to cogently list their grievances – Saada’s underdevelopment and exclusion; stigmatisation of Zaydi and Hashemite identities; detention and disappearance of Huthi fighters and allied political figures and intellectuals; and governmental failure to
203 President Salih’s position is ambivalent. Although nominally a Zaydi, he built a large mosque, inaugurated in November 2008, that uses the Sunni call to prayer (adhan), not the Zaydi one. Of the three clerics he appointed to it – from different religious branches – none was associated with Zaydism. Crisis Group interview, official, religious endowments ministry, Sanaa, 21 March 2009. The mosque administration has repeatedly invited Zaydi clerics to deliver the Friday sermon, an initiative that deserves praise and emulation in other mosques. Crisis Group interview, intellectual and GPC member, Sanaa, January 2009.