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What Do the Protesting Houthis Really Want in Yemen?

The Houthis have sent thousands of supporters to Yemen's capital to, they say, peacefully bring down the government after years of conflict.
Photo by Peter Salisbury

Over the past few weeks, an encampment has been taking shape alongside an abandoned quarry in Hizjaz, a garrison town just outside the Yemeni capital of Sana'a.

The men who set up the encampment came well-prepared, using bulldozers and tractors to flatten the ground before erecting tents in sufficient numbers, they say, to house several thousand people. They have even set up a block of flushing toilets, which run off into a nearby stream. As is customary in Yemen, many of the men at the encampment carry Kalashnikov rifles. If there are heavier weapons, they have been stowed away.


'Yemen: A Failed State.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

The men at the camp are cautiously welcoming to visitors — in their own way. When a small group of foreign journalists arrives at the site, the men wave their guns in the air as they shout repeatedly, "Death to America! Death to Israel! Damn the Jews! Victory to Islam!" One of the men then cracks a smile and tries to stifle a fit laughter.

"Ahlan," he says. "Welcome to Yemen."

The men in the camp are Houthis, a Shia group who have proven themselves to be Yemen's most potent fighting force, and who are now moving to cement their status as the rising power on a political scene dominated for decades by a small group of tribal, military, and Islamist cronies. They say they come in peace.

Not everybody believes them.

* * *

Since mid-August, thousands of Houthi supporters have flooded into Sana'a from across the country, mounting protest marches and setting up camps like the one in Hizjaz around the city's outskirts. They won't leave, they say, until President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi sacks the government, cuts fuel prices, and implements a series of democratic policies agreed upon at a series of peace talks earlier this year. If their demands are met, the camps will be dismantled, says Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the movement's leader.

At Hizjaz, a man who identified himself as Abu Zaid told me he was in charge of the camp. Ordinary Yemenis, he said, "have nothing to fear from us."


"We are peaceful," he went on. "The only people who need to have fear are the corrupt…. We will stay here for as long as it takes — until the downfall of the government. We won't take anything less."

Others were less strident about Houthi goals. "We just want the fuel price to come back down and for a new government," said Abdulwahed Hayshan, a soldier from the nearby Mareb province. "We don't have any plans to fight. We are peaceful, and our revolution will be peaceful."

Other men came to argue as he talked. Many of the tribesmen were armed — but it would be far stranger, they pointed out, to see men without guns in Yemen.

Islah, Yemen's main Sunni Islamist party that for decades was a key presence in the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh — he was ousted after the 2011 Arab Spring protests — has been battling the Houthis in Yemen's northern provinces. Members say that the Houthis true aim is to reinstate the Imamate, a 1,000-year period of monarchic rule led by descendants of the prophet Muhammed who are members of the Zaydi sect of Islam. The sect is unique to Yemen, and Abdelmalek al-Houth is an adherent.

Islah also alleges that the Houthis are backed by Iran. While the Houthis' "Death to America!" chant parrots a refrain from the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Houthis claim it's a condemnation of American foreign policy rather than a call to arms against the US.

"A group that relies on force to achieve its aims cannot achieve a political shift to democracy and government for the people," Adnan al-Odaini, one of Islah's chief spokesmen, told me. "[The Houthis'] aims are anything but democracy and human rights."


Hadi appears to worry that the Houthis have come to seize Sana'a by force. The camps on the fringes of the capital, says a government official who asked not to be named, are widely viewed by the security services as staging points for a planned assault on central Sana'a. The same official claims that the Houthis have been moving heavy weaponry, including tanks and artillery, closer to the capital in preparation for an attack.

* * *

The Houthis have an impressive track record of taking — and holding — territory even in the face of overwhelming odds. Between 2004 and 2010, the group fought six successive wars with the regime of Yemen's then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Despite starting with a small number of supporters, the Houthis expanded both their following and their control of territory in the northern province of Sa'dah. In 2009, during the sixth war, Saudi Arabia entered the fray, launching aerial attacks against the group — the first combat missions undertaken by the Saudis since the first Gulf War in 1991. The Houthis responded by crossing the border and seizing control of several Saudi villages.

In 2011, as Saleh was on his way to being unseated by both the Arab Spring and fighting inside his own regime, the Houthis took advantage of the security vacuum. They consolidated control over Sa'dah while their supporters, who backed anti-government protestors, became an increasingly visible presence in the capital. When a peace deal to end fighting between Saleh and his rivals was signed in November 2011, the Houthis were offered a place at the table during peace talks; they initially declined, but eventually participated.


'We said Sharia should be one of the main sources of the law in Yemen, [not] the only source. We were the only group that said we could not say Yemen was an Islamic state — the state should deal with all Yemenis regardless of their views.'

Even as its political wing was discussing the future shape of the Yemeni state in Sana'a in 2013 and 2014, the Houthis were taking control on the ground. In several rounds of fighting, they banished elements inside Sa'dah who they argued provided breeding ground for the local wing of al Qaeda. They also pushed into Amran, the province to the south, coming within about 30 miles of the capital.

The Houthis' presence in and around Sana'a has left Hadi in a precarious position. He is reportedly keenly aware that an outright military victory against the Houthis by Yemen's fragmented military — many of whom support the group — is a remote possibility. And even if government forces could win a fight, it would create chaos in the country that could open the door for groups like al Qaeda to seize greater control.

On September 2, Hadi offered to dissolve the government and to cut fuel prices by about 13 percent. The Houthis refused, demanding that a subsidy that was eliminated in July — the result was a rise in fuel prices by up to 95 percent — be reinstated in full. In response to the government's offer, al-Houthi called for his followers to ramp up their protests, organizing sit-ins on the main road connecting the center of the capital with Sana'a International Airport. This week, as many as eight people were killed in clashes between the Houthis and members of the Special Security Forces, a paramilitary unit overseen by the interior ministry, sparking fears that war is imminent.


* * *

The Houthi movement has growing appeal among ordinary Yemenis, even those who do not follow the Zaydi form of Islam practiced by the group's leadership. Yemen's 2011 uprising led to a peace deal that many activists criticized, as Islah and the General People's Congress — Yemen's historical ruling party — shared the choicest seats in a new coalition government.

Ali al-Bokhaiti, the Houthis' chief spokesman in Sana'a, is a prominent figure in the group's political wing, Ansar Allah. He is also emblematic of the Houthis' appeal to a broad cross-section of Yemeni society. Until late 2011, al-Bokhaiti was a member of the Yemen Socialist Party, but he became disillusioned after the party backed an immunity deal for Saleh in exchange for a cabinet seat.

"After the socialist parties joined the government, some of us were not happy — I looked to Ansar Allah and found it to be a new, more active group that could do more," al-Bokhaiti told me during a recent meeting at the Ansar Allah headquarters in Sana'a. "I thought that by joining them I could be part of building a new Yemen."

When pushed on Islah's claims that the Houthis plan on installing a religious autocracy in Yemen, al-Bokhaiti points to the group's position during the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a series of peace talks held in 2013 and 2014. "We said Sharia should be one of the main sources of the law in Yemen, [not] the only source," he says. "We were the only group that said we could not say Yemen was an Islamic state. The state should deal with all Yemenis regardless of their views."


The movement, al-Bokhaiti concedes, has a conservative religious wing in addition to its political wing. "There are some differences between the religious and the political groups, between the conservatives and the liberals," he says. "But at the NDC, the political side had the upper hand."

* * *

The Houthis' alleged activities in Amran province tend to contradict more liberal Sana'a-based supporters like al-Bokhaiti. At a meeting in mid-August at an upmarket Sana'a cafe, Yahya Mohamed Thulaya could barely contain himself. "All the people in the area who are activists, or work for political parties, cannot work [in Amran] and cannot return to their homes," he said. "We have all been asked to leave, and they have seized our [Islah] party headquarters."

Until July, Thulaya was the head of the state-run department of culture in Amran, bringing arts groups to the area and promoting literacy. "The Houthis came and took equipment to play music at weddings, they closed shops where they sold music. They even look at private computers and delete music they don't approve of. They are like the Taliban."

'Yemen: A Failed State.' Watch the VICE News documentary here.

Also in Sana'a, a senior sheikh with ties to Islah who asked not to be named played me a video on his phone that he said showed his home in Amran being blown up by Houthi supporters.

The Houthis, Thulaya said, stole lists of Islah supporters from regional offices and began harassing and arresting them. Islah itself claimed that thousands of its members have been imprisoned by the Houthis in makeshift jails both in Amran and in Sa'dah.


Al-Bokhaiti admitted that some "isolated incidents" occurred in Amran in which people had not been treated well, but denied that limits were being systematically placed on personal freedoms, or that people were being forced out of their homes. Such claims, he said, are made by people who resent the Houthis' incursion into Amran.

* * *

The protests in Sana'a, al-Bokhaiti said, are being led by the Houthis' liberal political wing rather than the Sad'ah conservatives who have been instrumental to military successes in the north. "When the government and other groups use violence, it is the conservative wing that deals with it," he told me. "The armed wing is not involved in the protests. That is the liberals and the intellectuals."

The group's aims in Sana'a are political, al-Bokhaiti added, and do not involve military action. "There are red lines," he said. "We know this. Saudi Arabia does not want the Houthis controlling the capital. We would lose our country if there was a fight in Sana'a. Abdel-Malek knows he needs everyone. He does't want to be president. It's a big headache."

US cluster bombs keep killing civilians in Yemen. Read more here.

Fernando Carvajal, a former Yemen-based NGO consultant who studied the Houthis, believes that the group does not have designs on the capital, but rather is moving to strengthen its political appeal by pushing for populist policies. "The Houthis are a highly efficient, calculating non-state actor with no ambition to rule Yemen itself," he said. "Taking Sana'a would create great liabilities in the mid- and long-term for the group, its supporters, and for al-Houthi himself.

"Their priority is upsetting the political-military order in north Yemen."

The group's success to date, said a Yemeni politician who asked not to be named, could well be its greatest liability. "For the first time, they are not the little guy but the big bully," he told me. "If they go too far, they will turn people against them — and then they will have no choice but to fight."

Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco

All photos by Peter Salisbury