Identity crisis in Yemen

Ahmed Eleiba , Saturday 23 Apr 2022

The Yemeni National Dialogue has succeeded in rehabilitating the nation-state in Yemen, but it will need to be built on to achieve lasting peace in the country.

Identity crisis in Yemen


The Yemeni National Dialogue, which convened in Riyadh from 29 March to 7 April, underscored the essence of the multifaceted Yemeni question: the need to restore the Yemeni nation-state. This had become an almost forgotten duty amidst the diverse agendas playing out in the country.

If the outputs of the dialogue appear to be largely tactical in nature, aimed as they are at paving the way to an end to the hostilities and a roadmap to a political solution to the conflict in the country, they nevertheless reflect the realisation that Yemen is fighting two battles at once: a military one and a battle for identity.

It is difficult to separate the two, and no political settlement of the armed conflict can achieve lasting results unless the battle of identity is also resolved. If this does not take place, identity-based ideologies that clash with the nation-state will continue to seethe beneath the surface and jeopardise stability.

This also applies to the regional dimension of the identity question, since it would be misleading to reduce the Yemeni crisis to the conflict against the north of the country controlled by the Houthi rebels.

The collapse of the regime led by former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 precipitated a resurgence of historic rifts, the most obvious being the north-south divide, which today is being articulated by the Houthi Movement in the north harking back to the pre-modern Yemeni Imamate and the Southern Movement in the south harking back to the former independent state of South Yemen.

This broader context throws into relief a dangerous trend. One of the most frequently heard concerns voiced during the dialogue was that the “Houthi project threatens to erode national identity in Yemen.” But it has become all too obvious since the outbreak of the country’s Civil War that the concept of a culturally pluralist nation-state has never taken root in Yemen and that this problem is not limited to the Houthis.

The Houthi insurgency was just one of the natural outcomes of the collapse of central authority in Yemen, a dynamic that has had historical precedents in Yemen and elsewhere.

But Yemen faces the unprecedented situation where two projects have re-emerged at once to threaten the reconstitution of a single state: the Houthi revivalist project fighting within the geographical boundaries of the historical Mutawakkilite Imamate in the north and the Southern Movement project in the south, factions of which have taken up the banner of secession and the resurrection of South Yemen.

The battles fought by the Southern Transitional Council (STC), the dominant faction in the Southern Movement, whether against Houthi incursions towards the south or against forces allied with the internationally recognised Yemeni government, confirm this.

However, the Southern aspirations are probably more containable than those of the Houthis in the north, given the Riyadh Agreement signed between the STC and the Yemeni government in 2019 and one of the outputs of this month’s dialogue making the STC one of the main components of the new Yemeni Presidential Council that has replaced the government of former president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The Houthis defeated the Salafis in Yemen at the battle of Dammaj in 2013, and they defeated the Muslim Brotherhood in the north when they staged their coup in September 2014. The Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen is represented by the Al-Islah Party, which went on to become the dominant faction in pro-Yemeni government forces in the south. After the 2014 coup, the Houthis aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Salah, enabling them to inherit his remaining legacy.

However, the Houthis’ greatest challenge in their drive to ascendancy was to assert their control over the Zaydi sect in Yemen, this being their primary sociocultural base.

Some maintain that the Houthi Movement has already succeeded in this and that there is no longer any resistance of note from within the Zaydi community. This also has historical antecedents since it is found in the Harudi creed, said to have led to an ideological rebellion in the framework of the Zaydi Shia belief in the “Hidden Imam” and a line of hereditary succession that traces itself back to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohamed.

According to some observers, the present-day Ansarullah Movement, led by the Houthis, espouses a concept of the “enemies of the ummah” rooted in the Harudi creed of persecution under the Ottomans, the former rulers of Yemen. The ideological use of “victimhood” also has a geopolitical history in the region that transcends Yemen, but the Houthis’ identification of the US and Israel as the “enemies of the ummah” naturally intersects with the outlook of Iran.

For such observers, this convergence of beliefs paved the way to the Iranian intervention in Yemen even before the country’s 2011 Revolution in the six flareups of conflict between 2004 and 2010 if not before in the framework of the Iranian campaign to expand its Islamic Revolution.

This has led to speculation about the nature of the Houthi project. Some have described it as an “Iranian edition” of the Harudi creed on the grounds that its “incubator” is Tehran and not the local Zaydi environment. If this is the case, it would be a weak point in the Houthi project, or at least in its current evolution, precisely because this dependency renders it captive to the Iran.

The manner in which the Houthi project has spread ideologically in areas under the group’s control during the past eight years has led some Yemeni observers to speak of the “ignorant Imamate.” The project is inherently a totalitarian theocratic one, they say, and one that is in the hands of individuals “from caves in Saada.” They mean that the Houthi leaders have at best a modicum of traditional education and are unequipped to govern in the 21st century.

More than two million children of school age are now not in school due to the war in Yemen, according to recent UNICEF figures. These children are the perfect vehicles for the Houthi project, both as fodder for the military and clean slates to be indoctrinated in Houthi thinking. There is also little difference between them and children who do attend school since the curriculum reflects the same doctrine.

“Schools in Yemen have become one of the sources for the military recruitment of both sexes,” according to one source. Girls are enrolled into “Daughters of Zeinab” programmes, from which they graduate into the all-female armed brigades the Houthis have established.

While some universities have been shut down as potential trouble spots, others have been converted into recruitment and indoctrination centres. The current war has thus sacrificed the education of an entire generation, and this will have disastrous implications for the future, regardless of how soon the war ends.

There have been reports of growing sectarian intolerance in Sanaa and elsewhere in northern Yemen. The tarawih (a Ramadan evening prayer) has been banned in many mosques, and the Houthis have instructed mosque imams to delay the time of the sunset call to prayer until the last rays of red have vanished from the horizon.

These and other practices are associated with Shia Islam, although some have attributed this rigidity to the Mutawakkilite legacy and the influence of extremist Harudi thought.

The Houthi authorities have also imposed extra religious sermons, which are published daily in the media and aired over mosque loudspeakers. Such practices undoubtedly hamper the prospect of social peace and coexistence in Yemen, which was once seen as a model in which it was hard to distinguish between Sunni Shafie Islam and Zaydi Shia Islam.

If the Houthis represent one of the more extreme facets of the problem of establishing a modern nation-state in Yemen, the National Dialogue conference demonstrates its fuller scope. There, too, the mentality that holds that “whoever holds power is the state” has seemed to prevail over the modern concept of the institutionalised state based on equal citizenship.

If some at the dialogue saw the need for a republican system in Yemen, others proposed federal concepts, while others still voiced ideas that seemed geared to resurrecting the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. This latter option is untenable, even if Saleh’s nephew and his allies will have a significant say in future arrangements. The old regime with it tribalistic support and various ills has been consigned to history.

Regardless of such confusion, however, the National Dialogue did succeed in rehabilitating the concept of the nation-state in Yemen. This is a positive first step that needs to be built on and amplified in a practical way so that it can compete effectively against other agendas.

The common denominator between the weak points of all the other projects is that they hark back to various historical eras and are not forward-looking. Some have described parts of the contention over the nation-state as it unfolded in the dialogue as a debate between rival histories and one that was only set aside, perhaps momentarily, when the new government authority was formed.

There are now committees of wise men and elders in Yemen, useful tools to achieve communal reconciliation. But so far there is still no real modern state-building project. This will need a broader vision, concrete mechanisms, and a different context.

It was the lack of these things that cast Yemen back to square one after the revolution in warfare and the clash between primary allegiances. This also explains why most of the forces that are now part of the new government still make it a priority to defeat the Houthis militarily, even though one of the main outputs of the dialogue was the emphasis on the need pursue political solutions to end the crisis.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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