After nearly two months of armed confrontations with government troops, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people, the leaders of al-Shabab al-Mu’min (Faithful Youth) movement in Yemen have expressed readiness to end their anti-government insurrection in return for a presidential pardon. This offer came in a letter signed by the 84-year-old spiritual leader of the movement, Zaydi alim Badr al-Din al-Huthi, and seems to confirm claims by the Yemeni authorities that they have effectively won a military victory against the rebellion, which had raged in the northwestern province of Sa’ada. “As citizens, we ask you to put an end to the injustice committed against us,” the letter said. “If this is done, we are prepared to turn ourselves in at any moment.”
Yet it is not clear whether the government is willing to respond positively to this offer. A recent mediation effort between the government, on one side, and Huthi and field commander Abdallah Aydhah al-Razzami, on the other, appears to have reached an impasse. According to the Yemeni newspaper al-Ayyam, the mediation, led by Shaykh Shaji’ Muhammad Shaji,’ failed to work out a compromise that was acceptable to both the rebels and the authorities (18 May).
This attempted mediation came after fierce fighting in late March and April in Sa’ada province. At the height of the fighting, activists of the Shabab al-Mu’min sneaked into the city of Sa’ada in the small hours of the morning of April 8 and barricaded themselves into a number of buildings, from which they proceeded to snipe at army and police units. The fighting had subsided by noon, and government troops managed to regain control of the city.
The incursion into Sa’ada cast suspicion on the government’s claims that its troops had effectively crushed the “sedition.” A statement issued on April 6 by a higher security commission, comprised of officials from the defense and interior ministries, said that “the rebellion started by Badr al-Din al-Huthi and the subversive outlaws who supported him has been quashed.” Despite the government claims, the insurgents refused to surrender and the movement’s leaders eluded the authorities’ efforts to capture them: they managed to flee to the al-Naqaa area close to the Saudi border. Guns only fell silent after Razzami agreed to a ceasefire. Sporadic clashes, as well as attacks by Huthi’s supporters against police and army positions and patrols, are continuing.
The recent fighting follows an uprising, last year, that was led by Huthi’s son, Hussein, who was killed by the Yemeni army after leading a three-month armed revolt in the mountainous northwest in which some 400 people lost their lives (see Crescent International, August 2004). Hussein was a former member of parliament for al-Haq Party, a predominantly Zaydi party established in 1991 by a group of religious scholars and activists who were disenchanted with the pro-Saudi stances of the Islah Party (the Yemeni branch of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), and its tilt towards salafism. In 1997 Hussein was in a splinter group that broke away from the main party after efforts to resolve disagreements with Sayyid Ahmad Muhammad al-Shami, the secretary-general of al-Haq, broke down.
The breakaway group, which included Hussein, his brother Muhammad, who has been in detention since he was locked up at the Department of Criminal Investigations in Sana’a before the eruption of the recent fighting, and his father Badr al-Din, had set a deadline for the party’s secretariat to meet a host of demands, including holding a general conference for the party and taking measures to give the party an effective institutional structure. They tendered a collective resignation once the secretary-general failed to meet these demands. The breakaway group organized itself as the Harakat al-Shabab al-Mu’min (the ‘Faithful Youth Movement’). As well as Badr al-Din and his sons, key figures in the movement who went to the new group included Muhsen Saleh al-Hamza, Muhammad Salih Azzan, Abd al-Karim al-Razihi, and Razzami.
The Huthis are prominent members of the Zaydi community. Although they are a minority in the country as a whole, Zaydis predominate among the tribes of northern Yemen. It is estimated that some four hundred Zaydi tribes live in the rugged mountains of northern Yemen, comprising about one third of an overall population of around 20 million people. Zaydism, named after Zayd, the grandson of Imam Hussein, who was killed in 740 CE in an unsuccessful rising against the Umayyad caliph Hisham bin Abd al-Malik, has long played a dominant role in the political history of Yemen. A Zaydi state was first established in northern Yemen at the end of the ninth century, followed by a succession of Zaydi states that ruled over parts of Yemen until the early 1960s.
That explains the element of political nostalgia, which typically seeks to reconstitute and reclaim a suppressed history, imbuing the two Huthi uprisings. In some ways, the upheavals attending these risings are the unrest of a community that longs to regain its past privileged role and position in Yemen’s political life. For centuries the Zaydis of Yemen have established themselves in their mountainous fortresses in the northern parts of the country, fighting many battles to preserve their independence and ward off outside powers. But the Zaydi community’s political fortunes declined after the overthrow of the Zaydi imamate in an army coup in September 1962, referred to in the country’s official governmental propaganda as the “September 26 Revolution”. The coup set off a civil war between the republican government (supported by Egypt) and royalist tribes supported by Saudi Arabia. The civil war ended when Egyptian forces left Yemen after the defeat of Arab armies by Israel in the Six Day War (June 1967). Yemeni tribes, including Zaydi ones, continued to have a large degree of autonomy under the umbrella of the state. The unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 set off a process of increasing reassertiveness of tribal identity throughout the country.
As far as the Zaydis are concerned, tribal reassertiveness coincided with a religious revival and a renaissance of Zaydi political thought. This revival involved a great deal of soul-searching, inspired by a deep sense of peril arising from the increasing popularity of salafism in Yemen. Badr al-Din al-Huthi was at the heart of this revival. As long ago as 1979, he began to write rebuttals and refutations of anti-Shi’ah literature produced by salafis. He took a keen interest in refuting the intense anti-Zaydi writings of Yemen’s foremost and most outspoken salafi scholar, Muqbil bin Hadi al-Wadi’i (d. 2001). Wadi’i lived in Saudi Arabia for fifteen years, where he studied under a number of prominent salafi scholars, such as Nassir al-Din al-Albani, before he was deported to Yemen in the early 1980s for alleged links with the armed group that seized the Haram in Makkah in 1979. Upon his return to Yemen, he set about establishing salafi centres and madrasahs throughout northern Yemen, all with financial support from Saudi sources. His fiery anti-Shi’ah rhetoric reached its zenith with statements expressing an intent to destroy the tombs of the Zaydi imams and their domes in Yemen.
In the discourse of Badr al-Din al-Huthi, refuting salafi attacks against Zaydism goes hand in hand with attempts to restore the original dissident and anti-establishment essence of Zaydi political thought. Huthi’s revivalism is a reaction to the traditional quietism of senior Zaydi authorities. The most senior of these was Majd al-Din al-Mu’ayyidi. Badr al-Din rejected the re-interpretation of Zaydi political doctrine spearheaded by Mu’ayyidi, which tried to reconcile Zaydi thought with republicanism. Mu’ayyidi and other prominent Zaydi ulama argued that conditions in Zaydi political doctrine that restrict legitimate rule to suitable learned descendants of the Prophet (saw) through Ali and Fatimah (ra) are valid under certain historical circumstances that are no longer present. In their re-articulation of the Zaydi principle of ri’aasah (leadership), Mu’ayydi and his associates regarded political leadership as a right vested in the community at large. As such, whoever the citizens elect becomes a legitimate ruler, regardless of whether or not he is a descendant of Ali and Fatimah (ra). Accordingly, proponents of this view conceived of the elected ruler as a muhtasib, who as a ra’is (leader) enjoys powers that are usually the sole preserve of the legitimate imam.
Badr al-Din’s insistence on descent from Banu Hashim as a requirement for legitimate leadership landed him in trouble with the Yemeni authorities; he spent some years in exile in Islamic Iran as a result. He returned to Yemen after a number of Yemeni scholars interceded on his behalf with president Ali Abdallah Salih. His stay in Iran introduced him to the radical militant-political thought of the Islamic Revolution, with its strong emphasis on social justice, liberation and resistance to western hegemony and exploitation. Badr al-Din’s rejection of quietism in favour of radical activism is best seen in the fact that he used Sayyid Qutb’s Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (‘In the Shades of the Qur’an’) in his lessons on interpretation of the Qur’an.
Badr al-Din al-Huthi’s project of renaissance and reformation tried to utilize ideas and works from Ithna-Ash’ari Shi’ism to strengthen Zaydi arguments on issues such as imamah, divine justice and the creation of the Qur’an. For instance, in his rebuttal of a commentary on al-Da’amah fi Tathbit al-Imamah (‘A Buttress in Support of Imamah’), a classical work of Zaydi political thought written by Yahya bin al-Hussein bin Harun al-Haruni al-Hassani (340-424 AH), Badr al-Din states that the Zaydi viewpoint on divine justice “is the same as the viewpoint of the Imamiyyah.”
With his son Hussein, Badr al-Din’s re-radicalization of Zaydi political thought was taken from the realm of polemics and theory into the realm of praxis and political activism. An energetic revolutionary, Hussein was mainly interested in forms of political organization and grassroots activism. He seems to have conceived of his activism, with its strong populist streak, as transcending the boundaries of Yemen and as being woven into the broader battle against zionism and US-led western hegemony. In this one can find signs of influence from the experiences of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Influenced by the Hizbullah’s success in navigating the tortuous shoals of the pluralistic arena in Lebanon, Hussein was very keen on avoiding any conflict, including a clash with the authorities, that would divert attention from the main confrontation with zionism and the West. In 2003, upon his return to Yemen from the Sudan, where he spent some time preparing for a Master’s degree in Qur’anic studies, Hussein formed a new group called Harakat al-Shi’ar (the ‘Slogan Movement’). Their slogan was: “Allah is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse on the Jews; victory to Islam.” He then began to organise anti-American demonstrations throughout Yemen and instructed his followers to chant these slogans after Friday prayers in mosques throughout the country. It seems that, because the slogans express common feelings in Yemeni society, Hussein imagined that they could become a catalyst of national unity and cross-sectional political mobilization, transcending various divisions in Yemeni society.
Pressure by the authorities, including the imprisonment of hundreds of his supporters, failed to persuade Huthi to tell his supporters to stop chanting these slogans. Tensions escalated until they resulted in armed clashes last summer. Sources in the Zaydi community are adamant that the government’s ferocious onslaught on Huthi’s supporters was largely instigated by outside pressures, emanating mainly from the US and Saudi Arabia, which were particularly concerned about the emergence and spread of an anti-western Islamist movement inspired by the experiences of the Hizbullah and the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
After the killing of Hussein last September the government moved vigorously against Zaydi and Ithna-Ash’ari Shi’ah activists throughout Yemen. Hundreds were arrested and measures were taken to restrict or ban ceremonies on various occasions. In an attempt to resolve the crisis, Badr al-Din went to Sana’a, where he spent two months trying to persuade the authorities to lift the restrictions on Shi’ah activists and to release the detainees, but all his efforts were vain. Frustrated, Badr al-Din left Sana’a in March and went to Sa’ada province, where he was welcomed by Razzami and other field commanders, who had been on the run since the confrontations last summer. Thus the second armed uprising came about.
It is clear that the Yemeni authorities have so far resorted to strong measures only in an attempt to deal with the rise of Zaydi activism. It is also evident that these policies have failed to stem the tide of radical, anti-western trends within Zaydi thought and praxis. If the second armed uprising indicates anything, it indicates that violent repression is a recipe for more trouble later.