THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – By Catherine Shakdam – When Yemen President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi visited the northern province of Amran on Wednesday, intent on calling on all parties to “turn a new leaf” and start afresh in the spirit of national cohesion and collaboration, not everyone in the impoverished nation, least of all Al Islah was satisfied.
Al Islah, Yemen’s most prominent Sunni radical faction, has been enthralled in a fight for political and tribal control over Yemen highlands since 1994, ever since the Houthis (Zaidi group organized under the leadership of Abdel-Malek Al Houthi) voiced their opposition of Sana’a central government on account of its allegiance to Saudi Arabia.
Like many things in Yemen, what started off as a political disagreement, an ideological spat soon turned into a bitter tribal feud fed by the ill-sectarian sentiment and an imperious need to demonize one’s opponent to better claim moral and religious high-ground.
For decades the Houthis, who came to embody Yemen’ Zaidi heritage for better or for worse, have stood to oppose Al Islah’s Wahhabis and Salafis, using religion and tribal loyalties to drive its narrative.
While undoubtedly Al Islah maintained the upper hand in Yemen, at least until today, as the faction benefited from strong Saudi back-up and financing, 2011 uprising and the subsequent fall from grace of the Muslim Brotherhood (a sub-faction within Al Islah) opened an avenue the Houthis were only to please to exploit.
Made stronger by the demise of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis of Yemen have emerged the winner of 2011 revolution. The once obscure rebel group has reinvented itself as a powerful force, a political movement capable of rallying to its cause tens of thousands of supporters.
Flying the flag of Zaidi Islam and calling for Yemen’s independence from all foreign intervention, the Houthis of Yemen have, for better or for worse found a deep echo in the impoverished nation, most especially in the highlands, where the group now towers over the crowds.
But as much as the Houthis worked to further their goals and attain political supremacy in a country in deep political and institutional transition, hoping to assert their positions in post revolution Yemen, Al Islah has been determined to prevent the rise of such a powerful contender at a time when it thought it had finally overcome the competition: namely former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Although diminished and somewhat politically obsolete as his image has been associated to Yemen’s descent into abject poverty and the spread of inequity and corruption, former President Salehs’ regime, the deep state as many have called it, never truly went away, rather it endured in the coalition government and through President Hadi’s rule. While former President Saleh sacrificed his personal political career to the revolution, he managed a stroke of genius when he salvaged his political heritage by securing his faction, the General People’s Congress’ longevity.
If Saleh could no longer rule as president, he made sure that his faction would remain strong enough to manufacture a comeback. It is actually Saleh’s manoeuvring, his deep understanding of Yemen’s tribal and political allegiances and alliances which allowed him to see past the chaos of the revolution and look far beyond the clouds and into the future – the Houthis.
If Al Islah managed to out-stage Saleh by harnessing the power of the Arab Spring, Saleh would use the Houthis as a counter-power.
When looking back at the past few months, when witnessing the rise of the Houthis a potent military power, a force capable of plying to its will provinces which thus far fell under al Islah’s tribal realm, it is difficult to imagine that the Houthis managed it all on their own.
A militia does not compete with an army and achieve victory without support. A rebel group does not turn mainstream politics without support.
But regardless of who or what propelled the Houthis to the forefront of Yemen’s political and tribal scene, realities on the ground cannot be denied. For better or for worse the Houthis have become Yemen’s new kingmaker.
And this is what President Hadi really came to say in Amran.
By refusing to punish the Houthis for their attack on Amran, or rather their attack on Yemen’s most prominent and politically involve tribal family: Al Islah, President Hadi came to consecrate the rise of the Houthis.
Speaking to Reuters, Yemeni political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani clearly enounced Yemen’s new reality by noting, “This underlines the government’s position that the fighting in Amran is not between the state and the Houthi movement but between Islah and tribal allies and the Houthis.”
The Houthis’ fight was never with Hadi, or the military power he represents, the Houthis’ quarrel was never with the republic or even the central government, it was always with Al Islah and through it Al Ahmar clan.
It is maybe because the Houthis never actually sought to target President Hadi’s institutional legitimacy that he gave the group so much leeway in Amran. It is most inevitably because President Hadi has understood the inherent threat Al Islah poses to his rule that he exploited the Houthis so called political cleansing against Al Islah and Al Ahmar. What President Hadi could not do as president of Yemen, the Houthis could.
As the Houthis have become tools for many powers in Yemen as factions attempt to level the field and define a new packing order, one question remain. Who will the Houthis serve once Al Islah will be neutralized, if it is neutralized?