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What do the leaders of Yemen's Houthis want?

The Houthi rebellion grew out of a long tradition of Shia political activism and decades of state vilification

February 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Friday, Yemen’s Houthi rebels dissolved the country’s parliament and announced a five-member presidential council that will act as an interim government for a period of two years, until a new parliament can be formed. The Revolutionary Committee replaces Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government. Hadi resigned along with his entire cabinet on Jan. 22 following a prolonged standoff with Houthi fighters.

The mass resignation left the country without a functioning government. The latest turn of events — described by locals as a coup — has raised broad fears about the potential breakup of the country and generated ongoing protests against the Houthi power grab. The group previously demanded integration into the country’s army and police as a condition for the release of Hadi and his Cabinet members from house arrest and now appears poised to unilaterally seize power.

The Houthis’ political views are as complicated as the historical origins of their movement. In the short term, they oppose Hadi’s plan to divide Yemen ­­­into six federal states. They have repeatedly rejected a full restoration of the historical Zaidi imamate, the Shia political institution that dominated the country for nine centuries. Instead, the Houthis are seeking a new constitution that guarantees them a representative political voice and guards against the kind of persecution their community has endured since 1962. In the meantime, the prolonged conflict has claimed thousands of lives and displaced an estimated 250,000 people in northern Yemen. No end appears in sight.

The history of Zaidism

The Houthis are often depicted as pro-Iranian militants adhering to a form of Shia Islam that resembles the Sunni Islam practiced by a majority of Yemen’s population. Both of these assumptions are flawed. The rise of the Houthi movement is part of a complicated negotiation of religious identity and patronage that stretches back to the 18th century.

The Houthis trace their origins to a religious tradition known as Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam that emerged during the failed revolt of Zaid — a great-great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad — against Syria’s Umayyad caliphs in A.D. 740. Zaidism was distinguished by its political activism. The Zaidis believe that any descendant of the prophet with the proper credentials becomes a divinely sanctioned imam by virtue of leading an armed rebellion against a tyrant.

Zaidi Shiism became the dominant religious tradition of the northern Yemeni highlands at the end of the ninth century. For the next 900 years, successive Zaidi imams ruled territories of varying size and instituted distinctive religious and political policies. In the 18th century, Zaidi imams came under the influence of Sunni scholars who lowered the qualifications for leadership. Zaidi imams, who previously had to demonstrate scholarly qualifications to stand for office, transitioned into monarchs whose right to rule was predicated on lineage alone. This trend culminated with the Qasimi dynasty, which dominated Yemen from 1598 to 1853.

The ultimate success of the Houthi movement will depend on their ability to build coalitions with influential tribes and political leaders in central and southern Yemen.

The fall of the Qasimi imams ushered in two decades of chaos followed by 35 years of Ottoman rule, from 1872 to 1918. Starting in 1890, the descendants of the first Qasimi imam rebelled against the Ottomans in northern Yemen with the support of a broad coalition of northern tribes. In 1918, after the Ottoman defeat in World War I, a new line of Zaidi imams (the Hamid al-Din imams) took control of the country, remaining in power until the September 1962 revolution, which ushered in a republican government.

The new republic’s leaders set about fundamentally reinterpreting the history of the Zaidi imamate. Although the later Zaidi imams explicitly favored Sunni scholars, they were now depicted as avid — if not fanatical — tyrants who persecuted all non-Zaidi religious groups. The revolution was thus interpreted as a victory of the larger Yemeni population over a parochial tribal Zaidism.

The regime’s hostility toward Zaidism was manifested in a number of ways. First, the state subjected many traditional Zaidis to persecution and even execution, creating an atmosphere of political paranoia and fear. Second, it either financed or allowed the financing of Sunni missionary activities in Zaidi regions by foreign actors. Saudi Arabia played a critical role in this regard by creating “scholarly institutes” designed to counter Zaidi beliefs. Third, the state outlawed classical Zaidi theological views, especially those pertaining to the imamate. For example, the Zaidi endorsement of armed rebellion against an oppressive state was considered outside the scope of acceptable discourse and deemed treasonous. Finally, the new government kept Zaidis marginalized, severely underfinancing and often shutting down their educational centers for their alleged spread of subversive ideas.

Zaidism declined steadily through the republican period, exemplified by the rise of scholars from Zaidi backgrounds who adopted Sunni theological and legal views. This development has contributed to a popular but mistaken belief that Zaidism closely resembles Sunni Islam.

A Zaidi revival?

But Zaidi scholars have continued to struggle to adapt and reorganize under the strictures of the republican state. Some are wary of the potential consequences of a resurgent Zaidism and have called on their followers to reject the revolutionary roots of their religious tradition.

The Houthis articulate a more activist view, hoping to restore Zaidism to its position as both a religious tradition and a political force. The movement grew out of the Party of Truth (Hizb al-Haqq), an opposition political party founded in 1990 to defend Zaidi interests against the incursions of Saudi Arabia and the republican Yemeni government through political participation. In the 1993 national elections, however, the party won only two seats in parliament. The setback enabled the rise of activist voices such as Husayn al-Houthi, a former Party of Truth member of parliament, who publicly criticized the government for its ties to Saudi Arabia and its persecution of Zaidi communities in the north. An increase in U.S. military aid to Yemen in the aftermath of 9/11 aggravated the tensions. In 2004 hostilities in the largely Shia Saada governate between a group of Zaidis known as the Believing Youth (led by Husayn al-Houthi) and the Yemeni army escalated into a broad armed confrontation. He was killed in September 2004 and was succeeded by his father, Badr al-Din al-Houthi, as the head of the movement. Husayn al-Houthi’s son Abd al-Malik al-Houthi took control when Badr al-Din al-Houthi died in 2010.

Hadi was elected president after a 2011 Gulf-brokered agreement that removed President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office. The Houthis, who participated in the uprising that led to Saleh’s ouster, felt excluded from the power-sharing arrangement and emerged as the leading voices of dissent. The subsequent political turmoil allowed the Houthis the time and space to reorganize their forces and rebuild their strength. Last month the Houthis successfully pushed back government forces and secured control of Sanaa.

Popular perceptions of the Houthi movement echo the republican government’s claim that the Zaidis are fighting to re-establish an elitist Zaidi imamate. For example, Saleh once described the insurgency not as an expression of Zaidi discontent with discriminatory government policies but as an uprising reminiscent of past Zaidi revolutions. This rhetoric continues to haunt the movement despite its repeated disavowals of any aspirations to revive the imamate. Even worse, the Houthis are routinely characterized as a puppet of Iran, as opposed to an indigenous tradition with deep Yemeni roots.

These depictions epitomize the central challenge faced by the larger Zaidi population in Yemen. The current atmosphere does not permit an individual to be both a Yemeni citizen and an adherent of Zaidism.

The long-term effect of recent Houthi victories remains unclear. The Houthis initially seemed reluctant to seize power, preferring a central role in a new ruling coalition. This stance stemmed from an awareness of their tenuous position in greater Yemen. The collapse of the government and the failure of efforts to establish a new ruling coalition appear to have pushed the Houthis to gamble on exercising direct political control of the country. This move has the potential to undercut their popularity as potential agents for political change and critics of governmental corruption. The ultimate success of their efforts will depend on their ability to build coalitions with influential tribes and political leaders in central and southern Yemen. The question remains, will they govern in collaboration with competing political forces or attempt to unilaterally impose their will on the country?

Najam Haider is an assistant professor of religion at Barnard College specializing in early Islam, Islamic law and Shiism. His most recent book, “Shi‘i Islam: An Introduction,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2014. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Middle East, Yemen

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