THE LEVANT – Thousands of supporters of Yemen’s powerful Shiite rebel group escalated their standoff with the government on Friday, setting up tents near three ministries to press for the replacement of a prime minister they depict as “manipulated” by their rival Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
In their fifth day of street rallies in the capital and across the country, tens of thousands of supporters of the Hawthi group —who adhere to a Shiite branch of Islam — marched and waved banners carrying a mix of religious, political and economic themes. One painted in red read “death to America, death to Israel,” while others denounced the recent lifting of fuel subsidies, which the president has defended as a badly needed economic reform.
The Hawthis waged a six-year insurgency in the north against former Yemeni Leader Ali Abdullah Saleh that officially ended in 2010. After Saleh’s ouster, they fought ultraconservative Islamists in several northern cities and towns, accusing them of turning their strongholds into incubators of extremism.
In a televised speech late Thursday, Hawthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Hawthi described the protest as a “revolution” and rejected what he described as attempts to paint his supporters’ demonstrations as sectarian.
In another speech broadcast Friday, al-Hawthi denounced foreign intervention in Yemen by the United States and other western countries, which earlier this week urged the Hawthis to end their protest movement and described it as “antagonistic, militaristic and disrespectful.”
“America and the west seek nothing but serve their own interests not the interest of Yemen,” he told protesters.
When demonstrations started Tuesday, al-Hawthi threatened to “escalate” them if the government did not resign by Friday. The country’s highest security body, the Supreme Security Committee, said Hawthi militiamen had deployed on rooftops and armed convoys were streaming to the capital from their northern strongholds.
The tension over the government has been simmering for months after critics alleged that Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Bassindwa is too weak and too close to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islah party, inside the government. Critics also blame Bassindwa for deteriorating security and economic conditions.
On several occasions Hawthi spokesman Mohammed Abdel-Salam has described Bassindwa as a “tool in the hands of the Islah party.”
After defeating Islah’s affiliated militias in northern Yemen, analysts believe that Hawthis are using the latest price hikes and popular anger to push for representation inside the government, where they are currently excluded.
Meanwhile, a Yemeni official with a presidential commission formed to try to resolve the standoff said from the Hawthi stronghold city of Saada that an agreement had been reached for a government reshuffle, with discussions ongoing over whether to form a technocrat or national unity government where all political factions and groupings are fairly represented.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
The current government was formed as part of a US- Arab backed plan to ease Saleh out of power after a yearlong uprising in 2011. Islamists and leftist parties now hold half of the cabinet portfolios while the rest are in the hands of Saleh’s former party. Yemen is now drafting a new constitution which should be followed by parliamentary elections, but a date for the vote has yet to be set.
Yemen, one of the Arabs world’s poorest nations, is facing multiple challenges. Besides the northern rebel movement, the government is battling the world’s most dangerous al-Qaida offshoot in the south, which also faces a separate secessionist movement.