SANAA, Yemen — Houthi fighters seized most of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and signed a deal with the government last Sunday. Since their lightning takeover of the city, Houthi militias have attacked the adversaries of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and political rivals of current President Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi. But the apparent ease of the Houthi victory reveals much more about the smoke and mirrors of Yemeni politics than it does about the militiamen’s fighting prowess. Indeed, by allowing the Houthis free rein of the capital, Hadi has taken a gamble that could bring more violence as the backlash against the Houthi uprising gains strength.
It has been more than a decade since Yemenis were last given the opportunity to vote for a parliament. After 33 years of rule by Saleh, a popular uprising in 2011 led to an internationally backed deal and an election, in which there was only one candidate: Hadi, Saleh’s long-serving deputy.
The government broke the social contract with Yemen’s 25 million people long before peaceful protesters took to the streets in 2011. The Houthis — also known as Ansar Allah — joined the demonstrations against Saleh, who presided over six wars against them from 2004 to 2010 in the groups’ stronghold in Yemen’s northern province of Saada.
Rooted in a 1990s Zaydi Shia youth movement, the Houthis formed in 2004, taking their name from then-leader Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed during the first war in Saada in 2004.
The 2011 uprising revived the group, and after Salehs’ ouster, the Houthis saw a surge in open support. During Saleh’s rule, Zaydism was repressed, and Houthis in Sanaa were under constant threat. Many disappeared into the prison cells of the capital’s notorious Political Security Organization, while others maintained their allegiance to the movement in secret.
During the unrest of the 2011 political uprising, the Houthis, who had been calling for autonomy, consolidated their control in Saada as the power struggle played out 115 miles away in Sanaa. Saleh’s ouster allowed Houthi supporters to emerge from the shadows, with the groups’ slogan being daubed on walls from the ancient city of Old Sanaa to mountainsides across northern Yemen. The battle-hardened group soon gained popularity outside its traditional Zaydi lines.
The 2011 protests united political opponents around the shared goal of removing Saleh and his regime, but once that was achieved, rivalries quickly resurfaced. In the two-mile-long tented sit-in that was home to anti-government protesters for nine months in Sanaa, fistfights broke out between Houthi demonstrators and their political rivals from Islah, Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood.
At the same time, confrontations in the north turned violent, centered on the Salafist Dar al-Hadeeth religious school in the village of Dammaj, to which the Houthis laid siege for two months at the end of 2011. Renewed fighting in 2013 led to a cease-fire agreement in January this year that included the evacuation of the Salafi students. After the fall of Dammaj, the Houthi fighters began their push south toward the capital.
Although often painted as a sectarian struggle between Shia and conservative Sunnis, the conflict at its root is political and tribal rather than sectarian. But the Houthis’ rise could cause the sectarian narrative to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yemen’s Al-Qaeda insurgency has always had an aggressive stance against the Houthis. As the group began taking territory in northern provinces, the Qaeda fighters of Ansar al-Sharia started to act on their long-running anti-Houthi threats. In July in a brutal Ansar al-Sharia attack that mirrored those by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, militants wearing head-mounted cameras slit the throats and hacked off the heads of 14 unarmed off-duty soldiers. Ansar al-Sharia justified the killings by claiming the soldiers were Houthis.
Saudi Arabia versus Iran
Conflict with the Houthis in Yemen is often framed as an Iran versus Saudi Arabia proxy battle that came to a head in 2010 when the Saudis were dragged into the most recent war in Saada as it threatened the kingdom’s border.
Saudi Arabia has backed multiple individuals and factions in Yemen, including Islah. But since 2011, the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar has played out in the tussle for influential patronage in Yemen. The previously close relationship between Saudi Arabia and Islah has soured since the uprisings of 2011, and Qatar has been spreading its informal sponsorship networks in Yemen. In March, Saudi Arabia listed both the Houthis and the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood as banned terrorist organizations.
Hadi has repeatedly thanked Saudi Arabia for its financial support while accusing Iran of inciting conflict by supporting the Houthis and the southern secessionist movement, Al-HIrak. Iran has denied arming the Houthis but is unlikely to pass up credit for the Houthis’ rise when it provides a boost to Tehran’s leverage in the region.
The takeover of Sanaa this week appeared well planned. After setting up tented encampments at the entrances to the city, peaceful demonstrators took to the streets of the capital calling for the corrupt government to be dissolved and for fuel subsidies, lifted in July, to be reinstated — both appealing demands to many Yemenis. On Sept. 9 those protests turned deadly when uniformed soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. Eight protesters and an ambulance driver were shot dead.
Attempts to broker a deal between Hadi and Houthi leader Abdulmalek al-Houthi over fuel prices and the formation of a new government repeatedly stalled. On Sept. 16 the first clashes broke out, leading to heavy fighting concentrated on a major military camp, the former base of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — who led the wars against the Houthis in Saada — and the surrounding area in the north of the city.
The Houthis won the battle in four days, just in time for the signing of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement as fighting raged in the north of the capital. While politicians gathered in the capital’s south for a signing ceremony, the prime minister announced his resignation and Houthi militiamen turned up at key government buildings in the center of the capital. Uncontested by the soldiers and military police posted to protect the city, the gunmen asserted their control of strategic buildings across the city, including the U.S. Embassy.
The target of the apparent takeover has not, so far, been Hadi but his and Saleh’s political adversaries. After storming the base of Ahmar, who turned against Saleh in 2011, the Houthis targeted the homes of the Ahmar clan (no relation to the general), including the houses of Islah backer Sheik Hamid al-Ahmar, who also stoked the uprising against Saleh in 2011.
The Houthi campaign in Sanaa was the culmination of months of fighting outside the city, most notably in the province of Amran to the north of Sanaa, where the Houthis persuaded tribal leaders and their men who had been loyal to the Ahmars to turn against them. In a significant symbolic act to the tribes of northern Yemen, the Houthis blew up the main family home of the Ahmars in July, marking an end to the family’s command over Hashed tribal subsects. Islah’s tribal influence was usurped — to the benefit of all its political opponents.
Saleh, who blamed the entire Arab Spring on the Muslim Brotherhood when I interviewed him early last year, has had three decades of experience in creating conflict to meet his own ends in Yemen. A weaker Islah removes obstacles for Hadi.
The drawback may come if, in the process of allowing the Houthis into the city, the conspiracy has inadvertently created a monster that could slip out of control. What happens next is almost impossible to predict. What parts of the deal will be implemented is largely down to the Houthis. In a televised speech to thousands of his supporters in the capital’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, Abdulmalek al-Houthi indicated the people’s committees of militiamen would stay until the military was able to maintain security against the threat of Al-Qaeda and suggested that the Houthis should continue their path south and east to the oil-rich province of Marib and al-Baydah.
In addition, a backlash from events in Sanaa over the last week may be brewing. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has released a statement calling on Yemen’s Sunni tribesman to unite and attack the Houthis. If representation in the new government, set to be formed within a month under the terms of the signed agreement, does not meet the expectations of Islah, there is a risk of disenfranchising swaths of the party’s supporters and driving them to take up arms or turn to Al-Qaeda.
Further conflict appears almost inevitable. Although the Houthis’ progress to Sanaa was tolerated, the next stage may test Hadi’s ability to halt their so far unchecked territorial gains.