Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 32
fully compensate war victims – and demands.204
More broadly, a key to lasting peace likely will be the Huthi movement’s normalisation as a political party, a Zaydi revivalist religious-cultural movement, or both. Such reintegration of former dissidents into state structures is not unprecedented. Both the 1960s civil war and the 1994 war of secession witnessed similar outcomes with the progressive co-optation of many rebel leaders in state institutions. Indeed, an array of government and opposition actors have advocated the insurgents’ transformation into a political party, an option Salih himself said he favoured.205 Likewise, Ali al-Anissi, head of the Bureau of National Security and director of the presidential office, claimed that the Huthis’ conversion into a political party was a precondition for peace, provided the party respected the constitution and was not based on discrimination against other sects.206 In the words of a well-informed journalist:
The Huthis actually are a political party but one that refuses to recognise itself as such. They represent a force and a lot of people. They have followers not just in Saada but in many other governorates. It is therefore necessary for them to establish themselves as an institutionalised political structure.207
So far, Huthi leaders have balked. The same journalist explained:
Their point is that political parties have failed and that current conditions do not allow for free and fair competition. Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi explicitly rejected the idea because he wants the war to remain a war of self-defence. He said that if he were to articulate a political platform, people would start fighting to defend it – something he
204 Rebels took tentative steps in this direction in 2007, establishing the Minbar website. Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi and Salih Habra now send frequent assessments to Sanaa-based journalists of the situation in Saada governorate and giving names and casualty estimates. Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, 8 January 2009. These steps are insufficient, however, as they lack coherence and documentation and are far from constituting a political platform.
205 Al-Hayat, 28 March 2009.
206 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.
207 Crisis Group interview, Yemeni Socialist Party-affiliated journalist, Sanaa, 17 January 2009.
Rebel leaders might favour an alternative scenario under which they would focus on Zaydi religious activities, assuming tolerance of religious diversity by the state and other religious actors, particularly Salafi groups. In a way, this would be a throwback to the 1990s, when the Believing Youth ran successful summer educational activities and when inter-sectarian tensions were less prominent.209 Tentative steps in this direction could be under way. According to a journalist:
Since Ramadan [September] 2008, the Huthis have shifted from violence to social, cultural and religious actions, even as they focus on foreign policy issues. This trend mainly is the work of Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi, however; we do not yet know the other leaders’ positions.210
C. Encouraging Civil Society Initiatives
Muted reactions from civil society, the opposition and media have been an important and unfortunate feature of the Saada war from the start. Criticism and in-depth analysis of the belligerents’ actions have remained rare, in part due to the information vacuum, in part due to fear of state repression. Public reaction also has been low-key, a possible reflection of the government’s successful stigmatisation of Huthis as criminals and
208 Ibid. Yahya al-Huthi argues that the political system’s shortcomings are the primary obstacle to the Huthis’ transformation: “We had the experience of the al-Haqq party when we worked within its framework in the early 1990s. It was useless. No one wanted to listen to us. The government tried to manipulate us, especially when it named Ahmad al-Shami as minister of religious endowments in 1997. So we decided to become independent and reject the party system, and we set up the Believing Youth”. Crisis Group telephone interview, Berlin, 3 February 2009. In 1997, the nomination of Ahmad al-Shami, secretary general of the al-Haqq party, as religious endowments minister was criticised by Believing Youth leaders, including Husein al-Huthi, who left the party to found his own movement. Samy Dorlian, “Les reformulations identitaires du zaydisme dans leur contexte sociopolitique contemporain”, Chroniques Yéménites, no. 15 (2008), p. 164.
209 Bernard Haykel, “A Zaydi revival?”, Yemen Update, no. 36 (1995).
210 Crisis Group interview, Nabil al-Sufi, independent journalist, chief editor, Abwab monthly, Sanaa, 4 January 2009.