Yemen, the Houthi rebellion (I): the polarization of national actors

Monday, 25 May 2015 07:51
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by Lorenzo Giuseppe Siggillino (EPOS)
EPOS Insights


The Houthi insurgency in Yemen was not an unexpected event: it originates from the 1990 unification and from the Yemeni transition process prompted by the local "Arab Spring". In addition to a large number of destibilizing forces, the country displays a high geo-strategic value, generating the conditions for foreign interventions within the domestic political context. In this analysis, I will focus on the local actors and I will try to outline the interests of different opposition groups, investigating how their positions evolved and how the Shia offensive impacted on the local society.

Yemeni political instability originates from 1990 when the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) reunified and gave life to the Republic of Yemen. The two regions had their specific traditions and had opposite experiences. Furthermore, the newly created united Yemeni population was affected by a considerable religious cleavage and some ethnic differences. Coexistence within the same political entity was a social, economic and political challenge, also due to the importance tribal commitments had in both Yemeni former states.

The Republic of Yemen is inhabited by a Sunni majority and a Shia minority, located in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Shias, practicing Zaidism, compose one-third of the total population and were mainly included in the Yemen Arab Republic. In 2004, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi led the minority in the first uprising against the government, in order to obtain greater autonomy for their heartland Saada, protection for their Zaidi traditions and more political participation. The leader was killed in the same year, but his family took charge of the group, which is named Ansar Allah but best known as the "Houthis". They organized five other rebellions between 2004 and 2010, when they signed a ceasefire with the government.

Ansar Allah is only one of the destabilizing forces in Yemen: opposition and dissatisfaction towards the government are widespread feelings in the country, which displays one of the most complex societies in the world. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is deep-rooted in the South and in the south-eastern part of Yemen. In late 2014 emerged an Islamic State affiliate which claimed reponsibility for the suicide bombings occurred in Sana’a, in March 2015, against some Shia mosques.

Since the 1990 unification a separatist movement (Hirak) has been active in the Sunni South of the nation. An Hirak insurgency generated a civil war in 1994, but the conflict did not produce concrete changes. Thus, the southern separatists kept protesting against the central authorities because of the lack of social services in their area and because of their political and economic marginalisation. The Yemeni government has faced the challenge in the South deploying a paramilitary group, the PRC, charged with controlling rebellions and mass protests.

In 2011 the context was ready to explode. The "Arab Spring" spread across the Arab Peninsula and arrived in Yemen, where protests, uprisings, rebellions had never stopped since the 1990 unification. An amazing number of Yemenis protested in the streets demanding President Saleh to leave. He had been in charge for more than twenty years, after having been President of the YAR. The main problem perceived by the Yemenis was corruption: the Yemeni corruption perceptions index is still now one of the highest in the world (Transparency International).

The Gulf Cooperation Council (in particolar Saudi Arabia) considerably influenced President Saleh who unwillingly accepted to leave the office. The Houthis, who had joined the protests, took advantage of the power vacuum to expand their control in their heartland Saada and in the neighbouring Amran province. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, former Vice President, replaced Saleh in February 2012, but Saleh’s resignation did not produce any significant effect, protests and uprisings did not stop as the population perceived nothing had changed. In 2013 President Hadi agreed to form a National Dialogue Conference, arena in which the ruling party (the General People’s Congress) and the other political forces should have cooperated in order to solve the main problems affecting Yemen.

However, the process was undermined by the attitudes of both Hirak and Ansar Allah which were frustrated for the unsatisfying transition process.

In 2014, the NDC experience ended up due to the rejection of the federal project proposed by the government and due to the outbreak of violence between rival groups. After the NDC breakdown, the Houthis launched a military offensive and conquered Sana’a in September, forcing the President to seek refuge in the city of Aden, an important port in the South which was also proclaimed new capital. The Shia rebels began to advance in the central and southern provinces in the attempt to gain control of the whole Yemeni territory, facing fierce opposition from the regular armed groups, from some Sunni tribes and from the southern separatists. The former president Saleh and the armed forces which remained loyal to him are supporting Ansar Allah in its effort, as Saleh wants to overthrow the legitimate president and come back to power.

Last February Ansar Allah dissolved the parliament and issued a constitutional declaration. On March 25, Saudi Arabia launched the "Operation Decisive Storm", a military campaign against the Shia rebels, interpreting the insurgency as an 'Iranian offensive'. Riyadh, leading a coalition composed of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, Qatar, Bahrein, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, decided to take action in order to safeguard its economic and geopolitical interests in Yemen, but the intervention of a Sunni regional coalition aimed at fighting the local Shia forces polarized Yemeni social actors.

The attitudes taken by the two main actors involved in the insurgecy highlights this process:

- Hirak: the Sunni separatist movement has always opposed the central government but is now backing it because it does not want a Shia regime.

- Tribal chiefs: tribal relations are really important factors within Yemeni society. Belonging feeling towards the state is low, identity is instead strictly related to tribal affiliation. Since the Houthi offensive started, the number of tribes supporting President Hadi or AQAP considerably increased.

The separatist movement aligned with its traditional enemy, some tribal chiefs sided with a Sunni terrorist organization in order to halt Ansar Allah. As already mentioned above, since its unification Yemen has been affected by a religious cleavage, but as many reports and documentaries produced on the ground point out (BBC, Al Jazeera) in many areas the religious divide had a low impact on the society and on the political discourse. In the North, Shia Islam has always been an important identity factor, but in many southern and central areas Sunnis and Shias mainly coexisted without problems. Dissatisfaction towards the government was provoked by political and economic marginalisation, resources depletion, lack of infrastructures, corruption. In the past 10 years, Yemeni society could have been represented by a dichotomic system: pro or against the government, only in few provinces the religious cleavage was perceived as an issue. The Houthi offensive, the Sunni international intervention and the Saudi rhetoric polarized Yemeni society increasing local susceptibility to the Sunni-Shia division and fostering a realignment along religious identities.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 May 2015 08:20
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