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Yemen’s Houthis - From Saada to Sanaa

Ahmed Eleiba, Al-Ahram Weekly, Sunday 23 Nov 2014
Saleh Al-Samad
Houthi political figure, Saleh Al-Samad (R), with Ahram online's Journalist Ahmed Eleiba (Photo: Ahram Online)

In broad daylight, at noon on 21 September 2014, the Houthi movement ended the standoff in Sanaa in its favour after overthrowing its irreconcilable political adversaries. These are the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (or the Islah Party), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamists and the prominent political and military leader Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar who, during the 2011 revolution, turned against his erstwhile companion, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in order to lay the foundations for a new and still controversial chapter in Yemen’s contemporary history.

On that day that the Houthis refer to as the revolution of 21 September and that non-Houthi commentators describe as the “fall of Sanaa”, Houthi militias, which had advanced from their main bastions in the capital and its environs, and had just defeated the forces of Al-Ahmar in the Amran governorate, swept the capital and, meeting no resistance, seized control of several strategic components. They ousted and replaced the First Armoured Division that had been loyal to Al-Ahmar, took over the television building and halted broadcasting for a day and then headed to the Department of the Army Chiefs of Staff and took control of that too. Simultaneously, Houthi forces established control points in various streets, calling them “popular committees”, and soon their slogan appeared on many walls in the capital: “Death to America. A curse on the Jews. Victory to Islam. God is great.” On the same day, Houthi leaders and officials in the capital signed the Peace and Partnership Agreement that replaced the Gulf initiative that had brought an unsteady calm and Saleh’s departure.

As these sudden and rapid changes are still cloaked in mystery and the subject of controversy, rumours and conjecture, Al-Ahram Weekly arranged to meet with a leading Houthi political figure, Saleh Al-Samad, advisor to the president and a key official in the Houthi political stronghold in the capital. For the first time in their history, the Houthis have such a stronghold. It is located in the tightly secured Al-Jarraf district. At first glance, the area appears similar to other parts of the capital, apart from the heavier presence of Houthi soldiers. They all sport the same slogans, the same weapons and the same uniforms. The vehicles at the checkpoints are all the same brands. Even their faces strongly resemble each other and most of them are about the same age — in their 20s.

To many observers outside Yemen, the Houthi movement is a new Iranian arm in the region. Is this in fact the case? Has the seat of Zaidiya Islam in Yemen, which had never known a sectarian-based state and where the Zaidi Shias, or “Fivers” as they are also known, are closer in their jurisprudence to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam, suddenly been transformed into an imamate of the “Twelver” branch of Shia Islam that prevails in Iran? Are they fired by some desire to revive the glories of the imamate that ruled Yemen for about a thousand years until its demise in 1962, or will the idea of the republic survive?

At another level, how does the movement feel about its military might and its passion for victory in the field?

Will its militia merge into the existing army, which is not institutionalised and governed by tribal allegiances, or will it keep its separate identity? What are the movement’s political ambitions? Does it plan to settle scores with its long-term adversaries and exact revenge for the six wars waged against it by the government as embodied in the Islah Party and former President Saleh, who is still a major player in Yemen, or will it conclude a truce? How does it stand on the project for unity and the southern secession project?

The Weekly brought all these questions to its meeting with Saleh Al-Samad who responded in accordance with the official political outlook of his movement.

He opened the interview by relating the background of the Houthi movement: “When Al-Sayed Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi perceived the nature of the American project in Yemen and its drive to impose policies on Arab and Islamic regimes after the events of September 2001, he began to lead a cultural, political and economic project to confront it. He started to build up an outcry against it through the call to boycott the US and Israel so as to prevent blatant intervention that had begun in Yemen through the attempt to force government schools and universities to change their curricula, to assert control over the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) and through the hundreds of millions of dollars that the US ambassador was funnelling into the country in order to buy up weapons from arms merchants. The aim of the American project was obvious. It was to occupy Yemen after the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden. Badr Al-Din mobilised youth into the boycott drive so that the US would understand that there was still a people here. It was also in the interests of the regimes themselves.

“The ruling regime at the time, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, initiated a media campaign intended to frighten some neighbouring countries by suggesting that Iran was behind this drive, though they knew perfectly well that Iran had nothing to do with it. The regime then laid siege to Al-Sayed Hussein and his followers in Amran, surrounding them from all sides throughout four wars during which all access to food was cut off, while Saudi Arabia, due to its differences with Iran, was intimidated by the misinformation campaign into supporting the offensive against the movement.”

 What Al-Sammad referred to as the first war ended with the death of Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi in 2006 and the displacement of many people from areas in Amran and Kholan, which had been taken over by the army. “The army practised all forms of humiliation and degradation. The regime began a programme of demographic change and brought in Salafi preachers with the purpose of spreading Salafi doctrine in these areas. The tensions this generated on top of the degradation that had been inflicted led these communities to revolt again. The second war, which was caused by the pursuit of Al-Sayed Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, the father of Al-Sayed Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, ended in less than a month with his flight into the mountains. When the regime attempted to pursue those youths who were fighting the American project, the resultant tensions in those communities erupted into another revolt that caused the army to withdraw from some areas. So the government prepared for a third war, then a fourth, and then a fifth. During the sixth war, Amran and many other areas flared into revolution against those militias that were practising degradation, sectarian discrimination and forced conversion. As these areas are adjacent to Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni regime turned to Riyadh that helped finance the regime in order to support it in those six wars. Unfortunately, we were forced to defend ourselves against an aggression that lasted no less than three months.”

Al-Samad explained that after several rounds of warfare, the Yemeni army was weary and worn. Authorities in Sanaa believed that Saudi Arabian support would give the army fresh impetus in its battle against the Ansar Allah (the military wing of the Houthi movement). The presumption was that these forces were exhausted and weakened and would be easily defeated, which would put an end to the Houthi movement. The Yemeni authorities persuaded Riyadh to back them and they worked out a plan.

“The Saudi regime unleashed a war of genocide in areas deep into the governorates of Saada, Amran and other governorates that were not located near the combat zones. Hundreds of people from those areas were killed. They targeted markets, schools and refugee camps.

“There was an appalling media blackout, locally, regionally and internationally, preventing the dissemination of news about these wars in which more than 10,000 people were killed, 28,000 were wounded and 15,000 homes were destroyed. There was widespread complicity in this blackout. Even the Iranian media only began to intervene to expose the facts when Saudi Arabia became involved. Eventually the Arab media also began to speak about these wars because they began to affect their regional security.”

Were the hardening positions of the government the reason behind your own hardened positions at present, not to mention the emergence of certain practices such as the commemoration of the Day of Ghadeer, which suggests a shift away from Zaidiya and towards a form of Shia proselytising?

With regard to Zaidiya, it has advocated defiance of the tyrant ever since the era of the Imam Zaid (Ibn Ali, grandson of Hussein Ibn Ali). All the imams were killed in their struggle to liberate the Muslim people from tyranny. And, in fact, after the 26 September Revolution, the Zaidi seat in Yemen became the victim of persecution, exclusion and discrimination, causing the Zaidi revolutionary spirit to fade. In addition, animosities were sown with the empowerment of the Wahhabis in many areas in so-called centres for Hadith and Quran, with huge Saudi funding and backing. Their purpose was to change the religious identity of the inhabitants in the areas in which Zaidis live.

 When Al-Sayed Hussein arrived with his revolutionary sensibility, he did not bring anything new. He was following the same course as the Zaidi imams in his response to the oppression of the Zaidis. However, I must stress that Al-Sayed Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi was not sectarian by any stretch of the imagination. He spoke in the name of all people in the nation, in the name of all Muslims. The Ansar Allah movement included many different people among its ranks, even from the Wahhabis themselves, socialists and the General National Congress (GNC). The movement never had a sectarian dimension. Al-Sayed Al-Houthi always told us to forget those subheadings and focus on the real title, which is: Muslims are for God and the religion of God is Islam.

Is there a desire for revenge against the government and political adversaries?

There was never any desire for revenge. During the six wars we were under attack. As soon as the president announced a ceasefire, the hostilities would cease entirely and the army and the tribes that supported it were accorded full respect until they attacked again. If there had been intent to take revenge, the period after the revolution of 21 September 2014 offered the perfect opportunity for vengeance against all political forces. Yet, during their entrance into and presence in Sanaa, the Ansar Allah displayed the highest degrees of tolerance. They did not attack the institutions of the state that were part of the six wars against the Ansar Allah. Nor did they attack their political adversaries, whether political parties or others.

Are we to understand that you do not intend to revive the imamate?

That has always been a bugbear that our adversaries used to frighten people. We have taken part in many elections. Al-Sayed Abdel-Malak Al-Houthi, the movement’s current leader, has stressed in many of his speeches that we are republicans. We work to safeguard the republican system and we work to protect the nation, but we have a right to be partners in building this nation and in the political process.

So you have no desire to revive the imamate?

None at all.

You took part in the February 2011 Revolution. Now you speak of the revolution of 21 September 2014.

Do you regard seizing control of Sanaa as a revolution?

We endured six wars from the former regime against which the February 2011 Revolution was waged. As that revolution began peacefully, we laid down our weapons and joined it in order to bring change in a peaceful and democratic way. However, some political forces that rode the revolutionary wave were determined to exclude Ansar Allah from the revolutionary sphere.

Could you specify who those forces were?

I refer to Mohsen Al-Ahmar and the Islah Party. They tried to expunge the major role that Ansar Allah played in the revolution, even in media coverage. Hundreds of thousands took part in anti-regime demonstrations in Saada and other governorates, yet these were ignored entirely. That way, if the revolution succeeded, it could be claimed that we were “remnants” of the old regime and the practices of that old regime could be reproduced after the revolution. This is exactly what happened. During the February revolution, at the time of the Gulf initiative, certain political forces scrambled to curry favour with the Saudis and Americans in order to win support for a new assault against Ansar Allah, towards which end they would trigger sectarian warfare.

Ansar Allah was not party to the Gulf initiative. The parties were the General National Congress and the Joint Meeting Parties and when they signed that initiative without us it proved embarrassing for them in front of the people and the revolutionaries. So they raced to win US and Saudi approval for a war against us. We faced a war against us in Dammaj by the Salafis who for the most part are loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh. We faced a war in Al-Qata by Mohsen Al-Ahmar and his clique. We faced a war in Aham by the Islah. This was a political war whose aim was to pressure us into going along with the government. In fact, they were trying to exclude a large segment of society, especially Ansar Allah, the southern movement and other important groups. Eventually, their monopolisation of power, their dictatorial approach and their plundering of public monies precipitated such discontent that the revolution resumed and was ultimately crowned on 21 September.

Some claim that the fall of Sanaa to your forces was the result of a pact between you and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Or is it just that his interests and yours converge?

That is pure propaganda circulated by the parties that signed the Gulf initiative together with Abdullah Saleh, who divided power among themselves and who, during the feast at the end of Ramadan, appealed to Abdullah Saleh to ally with them again against Ansar Allah. If they were so certain that there was a pact between Ansar Allah and Saleh they wouldn’t have implored him and kissed his feet to persuade him to accept them again.

All of this is about alarming the international community. Also, they haven’t grasped the power of Ansar Allah in the field. The ghost of Ali Abdullah Saleh obsesses them. We deal with the General National Congress on basis of the principle that there should be no conflicts. For the same reason we work with the Islah Party, the socialists and all other parties.

How did Houthi forces gain control over Sanaa so easily?

 Mohsen Al-Ahmar appeared to have surrendered easily. How did Islah back down so easily? And in broad daylight, as though everything had been prearranged.

When you contemplate Yemen’s demographic composition, its geography and the capital, Sanaa, you realise that a majority of its inhabitants are basically Ansar Allah. They form the bases of the ideas and outlook that Ansar Allah advocates. Ansar Allah didn’t come from outside Sanaa; they came from inside the capital or its surroundings. That resounding fall of the capital Sanaa to Ansar Allah was the result of widespread anger and discontent against injustice, tyranny, exclusionism and marginalisation, whether of a sect or a large segment of the populace, especially in the capital. Those sentiments found support in Ansar Allah. No force could have entered Sanaa so easily without the support of a popular base among the inhabitants of the capital and its surroundings.

Does the widespread presence of your bases also apply to Taiz, where there is a significant presence of civil society and political plurality, whereas Ansar Allah is a political religious group?

With regard to Taiz, the people there are very aware. I will make no secret of the fact that there are many Ansar Allah there. However, the fact that our presence in some areas is targeted forces us to establish a presence and defend ourselves, as occurred in Ibb, Radaa and in Sanaa, where some of our best men were killed. Our friends are in Taiz and they were not targeted. The local authorities, the governorate, the security director are responsible for protecting everyone. This is what we wanted, so there was no crisis.

Does the Peace and Partnership Agreement document supersede the Gulf initiative?

The Gulf initiative gave us an un-harmonious government. It was purely a means to favour certain parties, as the parties to that initiative — the General National Congress and Joint Meeting Parties — were allies of the Gulf and the US. By contrast, there was a rising force of Ansar youth and independent youth who were keen to unite those powers, and they were the two parties to the Gulf initiative. The Gulf initiative was signed while war was raging in Sanaa. That government was imposed, but its prime minister couldn’t even manage his cabinet. Every minister was loyal to and followed the directives of the party that put him in the cabinet. They couldn’t even take a single decision throughout their time in power. It was well known that the government of Mohamed Basindwa couldn’t even dare take a decision.

With the formation of a new government, is the crisis over?

I think that with the formation of the partnership government following the Peace and Partnership Agreement, the president and prime minister — if they are serious about steering Yemen out of this dilemma — can forge a government that is loyal to the nation above all.

What should be the criteria for choosing members of this government — expertise or quotas?

Both. The government should engage people with skills and expertise, but ensure partnership. It is not in the interests of the prime minister or president to exclude parties from the government. They should choose expertise from the parties on the condition that all are partners in the political process. This is in the interests of everyone.

Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi — what is your assessment of him as president?

During the September revolution we believed that the presence of President Mansur Hadi was a guarantee against the collapse of the state. Our whole revolution and all our demands revolved around the government implementing the outputs of national dialogue and cancelling hikes in fuel prices. In spite of the massacres that occurred in the street to the airport, and at the prime minister’s building, we did not raise our demands to target the president because we were keen for him to remain as the keystone that kept all the institutions of government from collapse. This is still our position in spite of a number of situations that challenge this stance. For example, when we entered the political process and met with advisers to discuss the distribution of cabinet portfolios, we made a huge concession. We agreed to only six seats compared to nine for the General National Congress, even though the situation on the ground would have entitled us to half the seats and to impose the same equation as they did with the Gulf initiative. Yet, we compromised in order to show that we do not want to force our views on others.

Your forces are still in the streets. What will you do with them? Will you incorporate them into the army, for example?

Yes. We have endured six wars against Saada in the context of exclusion and marginalisation. Part of the partnership agreement and the outputs of national dialogue is that we and the peoples from those areas that have suffered wars should be incorporated into the institutions of the state, including the army and security agencies. Now that we have established our presence powerfully in Sanaa and other governorates, we should become partners in protecting ourselves. We have a right to take part in remedying the effects of the wars against Saada. I believe this is something we merit, that we should be assimilated into the armed forces, as occurred with the forces of the central regions after the 26 September revolution and with the people of the south after the events of the summer of 1994. Following the 2011 revolution, more than 150,000 conscripts from the Islah Party were assimilated into the army. As for Al-Houthi soldiers, it will be possible to benefit from their skills and from the security and military experience they gained during the previous wars.

What is your outlook with regard to the south? Do you have a particular vision on that question?The question of the south is one of our most important concerns. We support any just solution.Even if that involves secession?

We are with any just solution that fulfills the rights of the southerners and restores the rights that were stripped from them during the dictatorial period. Yet, I do not believe that the people of the south will go as far as secession. There are many who support unity. We favour a solution beneath the ceiling of unity.

Talk of your presence at the Bab Al-Mandab (a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa) has stirred international concern. What do you have to say about this?

I believe that the talk about our threatening the Bab Al-Mandab falls into the same category as the type of talk used by certain parties and their media to alarm Saudi Arabia in the past, only this time it is targeting our brothers in Egypt. We respect international and diplomatic conventions and agreements on navigation in international waters. Moreover, we have no presence at all at the Bab Al-Mandab. What happened is that after having been prevented from visiting certain areas, our people began to make visits, after the victory that occurred with the 21 September revolution. They have as much right to be in Hodeida as any other Yemeni citizen. But there is no intention to establish a military presence, and all talk to the contrary is pure propagandistic distortion. We have great respect for our brothers in Egypt. Egypt had a major role in Yemen in the past and it has one in the present. Many Yemenis still go to Egypt for medical care and education. We can presume there are common denominators. We are targeted by the enemies of the Muslim nation. That there are liberation movements against the American project in the region is in Egypt’s interests.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly. 

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