Local Conflict, Global Spin

An Uprising in the Yemeni Highlands

by Iris Glosemeyer
published in MER232

Clashes between the followers of a Zaydi Shi‘i religious figure and security forces left hundreds of people dead in a remote area in northern Yemen in the summer of 2004.

The precipitating incident was obscure, perhaps unimportant. It is hardly worth mentioning these days when worshippers in Arab countries leave the mosque reciting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans. The Israeli government’s violent reaction to Palestinian attacks, the war in Iraq -- widely understood as an imperialist invasion -- or the pictures from Abu Ghraib only confirm for many Arabs the impression that Israel and the US are joined in an all-out assault on the Islamic and, in particular, the Arab world. Thanks to the modern media, even in Yemen the “felt proximity” of events bears no relation to their actual geographic location. As in other Arab countries, and even though the US has never been involved in armed conflict with Yemen, many Yemenis see themselves confronted by an overwhelming American-Israeli force. Demonstrations against what is seen as aggression in Afghanistan, the West Bank and Gaza, and Iraq are part of daily political life, even if Yemen has problems enough of its own.

Nevertheless, the Yemeni police found it necessary, on June 18, 2004, to arrest and temporarily detain demonstrators in front of the Sanaa Grand Mosque -- reportedly 640 followers of the Zaydi cleric Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi. [1]

Two days later, when the governor of Sa‘da, a northern province bordering on Saudi Arabia, attempted to travel into the Marran region (district of Haydan, about 60 kilometers southwest of Sa‘da city), local inhabitants denied him entry. How exactly a local quarrel with the governor, a military appointee, escalated to this point is unclear, though there is precedent for disagreement between the central authority and the population in some parts of the governorate. There were reports that tribesmen from the Marran mountains fired upon police at a military checkpoint, and that the men (probably also tribesmen) blocking the governor’s passage were followers of al-Huthi. The governor, rather than letting the matter rest, returned with military reinforcements.

As of mid-August, this local conflict had cost at least 500 lives. Two thousand families are said to have fled the area, while arrests have taken place not only in Sa‘da governorate, but also in ‘Amran, Hajja and Sanaa governorate as well as in the capital Sanaa. At least three attempts to mediate the crisis have failed -- officially due to al-Huthi’s refusal to surrender, though mediators complain that the military resumed fighting during the negotiations -- and al-Huthi and his followers have been surrounded in their refuge by thousands of soldiers. Reports that al-Huthi had fled either to neighboring Saudi Arabia or to another part of Yemen were unconfirmed.

In spite of the abundance of weapons in Yemen, it has been years since a dispute between the central government and regional, or tribal, powers has assumed these dimensions. There has been no military conflict between the state security forces and a Zaydi cleric and his followers since the 1960s. So, what is the problem?

One can only speculate about the cause of the troubles between al-Huthi -- once a local government official in Sa‘da and, from 1993 to 1997, a member of the Yemeni parliament -- and the governor Brig. Gen. Yahya al-‘Amri. Nor is it known what took the governor to the Marran region in the first place. It is possible that al-Huthi faced arrest for inciting demonstrations not only in the capital city of Sanaa, but also in the governorate of Sa‘da, or that the governor simply wanted to talk to al-Huthi about a recent problem between members of a local tribe and the government. Al-Huthi seems to be attached to and protected by members of the Khawlan Sa‘da tribe whose attitudes toward the government he might influence.

Al-Huthi’s leadership is based on his status as a sayyid, or a member of the religious elite claiming descent from the Prophet, of the Zaydi school that predominates in northern Yemen. But whereas Sa‘da was historically a stronghold of Zaydi doctrine, lately Salafi (puritan) preachers who received their training and financial support from neighboring Saudi Arabia have gained quite a following in the region. Violent conflict has even broken out at times between representatives of the two religious tendencies. [2] The local Zaydiyya, adherents of a form of Shi‘a Islam that is close to Sunnism, share the belief of the Twelver Shi‘a that the imam, or leader of the religious community, should be drawn from the elite sayyid families. Zaydis differ from Twelvers in that the Zaydi imam (the last one died in exile in 1996) is a worldly figure, educated, healthy and battle-tested, and always subject to being replaced by a more competent rival. In contrast, the Sunni Salafiyya -- the ideological archenemy of the Shi‘a -- lay great stress on the principle of equality among Muslims, gaining as new members ordinary Zaydis who are resentful of the special status of the sayyids. In the 1990s, Salafi preachers vilified Zaydi traditions as elitist in an appeal to the tribal and artisan communities in Sa‘da and elsewhere.

Why the challenge to the government precisely from a Zaydi cleric? First, Arab discontent over Israel and the US is not restricted to puritan Sunnis. The Iraqi Muqtada al-Sadr, a representative of the Twelver Shi‘ism that predominates in the Persian Gulf region, is one signal example. It is possible that Hussein al-Huthi feels inspired by al-Sadr. The latter’s resistance to the American occupation attracts attention in the Yemeni highlands not only because of satellite news broadcasts but also because in recent decades many exiled Iraqis have found a new home in Yemen, and many thousands of Yemenis studied in Iraq. Al-Huthi reportedly maintains contact with several Shi‘i Iraqis who are located in Sa‘da.

The more interesting question is why the Yemeni government would react so strongly, now, to propaganda from a preacher long an outspoken critic of the US. President Ali Abdallah Salih maintains that al-Huthi has long been underestimated. Other prominent Yemenis dismiss him as unimportant. The extent of the protest by al-Huthi’s followers and the fact that they blocked entry to the governor could have forced the president’s hand. For years now, the Yemeni government has faced the same dilemma as other Arab governments: the US expects cooperation in the hunt for suspected terrorists -- and has the means to exert pressure -- while the population views this cooperation as proof of the inability or unwillingness of their governments to lessen US influence in the region. The Yemeni press kept a wary eye on the behavior of the outgoing American ambassador, Edmund Hull, whose influence allegedly far exceeded the powers of his office. If the government does not intervene in anti-American demonstrations, the Salih regime loses credit with the US government. If it does intervene, it loses legitimacy in the eyes of the population.

Al-Huthi’s following has multiplied since the onset of the fighting. People now speak of thousands of supporters, but it is likely that a view of the massive military presence as an overreaction has drawn more tribesmen into the conflict because they feel the government is encroaching on tribal sovereignties and violating the rules of tribal warfare (which, for example, forbid fighting during negotiations). According to other reports, local tribes are supporting the security forces. The conditions are set for further conflict even after the fighting ends between tribesmen who supported different camps -- a situation that evokes memories of the civil war in North Yemen in the 1960s.

The case of al-Huthi probably also promised the opportunity for the government to set an example to establish a monopoly on violence in one of the tribal governorates, while exploiting the conflict as a demonstration of its commitment to the war on terrorism. Parallels to past events like the clashes between the security forces and the ‘Abida tribe in the governorate of Marib in 2001 are palpable. This time, however, the government underestimated the difficulties it would face in the difficult mountainous terrain of Marran.

One important factor in the conflict is specific to Yemen. Hussein al-Huthi is a Zaydi sayyid, that is, someone technically qualified to lay claim to the imamate and to establish a Zaydi state. Zaydi states existed for more than a thousand years in North Yemen, until the last one was replaced in 1962 by a republic. A scenario in which al-Huthi would declare himself imam awakens memories of the civil war between followers of the last imam and supporters of the republic, which ended only in 1970. Since that time the Zaydi sayyids have maintained a low political profile, even though, with the exception of members of the family of the last imam who fled to Saudi Arabia (and later moved to Great Britain), no one was excluded from the reconciliation achieved in 1970. Only after the unification of the two Yemeni states in 1990 introduced a multi-party system was a political party formed, the Hizb al-Haqq (Party of Truth), to represent the sayyids, whose largest constituency is in Sa‘da governorate. But this party’s platform explicitly renounced the reintroduction of the imamate -- one of the major pillars of Zaydi doctrine -- and some observers see the party foundation as an act of Zaydi self-defense against the Salafi currents organized in Yemen’s biggest opposition party, al-Tajammu‘ al-Yamani lil-Islah (Yemeni Congregation for Reform). [3] Al-Huthi himself was a member of Hizb al-Haqq for the period in which he held a seat in Parliament. Since the end of the 1990s, the former parliamentarian has been increasingly vehement in his statements against US policy, and as early as 1997 he founded a youth organization, the “Believing Youth,” which officials now characterize as militant.

The fear that al-Huthi could upset the peace between Zaydis and the other denominations in Yemen -- the majority of Yemenis are Shafi‘i Sunnis -- and threaten the republic by proclaiming himself imam at least contributed to the hard line taken by the government. This can be seen from statements made in the Yemeni and Arab press, accusing al-Huthi of virtually everything that is politically incorrect in Yemen. At times it has been said that he declared himself imam, and he is supposed to have raised his own flag in place of the flag of the Yemeni republic. In another variant, it was the flag of Hizballah -- though it is highly questionable whether anyone in Lebanon had ever even heard of al-Huthi before the fighting started. He is supposed to have forcibly confiscated the alms tax -- an open challenge to the government. A government official even went so far as to maintain that al-Huthi is supported by the roughly 1,000 Jews living in the governorate of Sa‘da, whom the official accuses of working for the collapse of the Yemeni republic -- an extremely dangerous transfer of regional conspiracy theories to Yemeni domestic politics. [4] Most Yemeni Jews emigrated in 1948-51 with the founding of Israel, leaving rather few families who have since refused many offers of relocation. In its August 2 edition, the Yemen Times even suggested a link between al-Huthi and a number of al-Qaeda suspects recently on trial, merely because one of them expressed his sympathy for al-Huthi’s case -- an interesting twist given the animosity between Salafis and supporters of Hizb al-Haqq in Sa‘da. This colorful but by no means complete bunch of allegations -- most of which were denounced by al-Huthi before his phone lines were cut -- indicates how desperately the Yemeni government is trying to justify its line of action domestically and inter- nationally and to prove its commitment to the “war on terrorism” (which one might interpret as a rent-seeking strategy).

In fact, al-Huthi’s motivation is simultaneously local and utterly international. In a letter to the Yemeni president, whom he deferentially addressed as “His Excellency, President of the Republic, Brother Ali Abdallah Salih,” al-Huthi declared his sense of duty to defend Islam and the community of Muslims against Israel and the US. [5]

Unwritten but between the lines was the message that this defense is properly the task of Arab governments, including the one in Yemen. The local conflict in Sa‘da is therefore neither more nor less than the local expression of the crisis of legitimacy confronting Arab governments that are involved in the war on terrorism and whose situation since the transfer of power in Iraq has not improved in the slightest. To be foreseen are further local conflicts -- not only in Yemen -- sparked by events in other countries in the region. Globalization has reached the most remote areas in the Middle East.

—Translated from the German by Don Reneau

Endnotes
Author’s Note: This article benefited from exchanges with and between Sheila Carapico, Shelagh Weir, Lisa Wedeen, John Willis and others.
[1] Yemen Times (online), June 24, 2004. Statistics cited in the Yemeni press frequently repro- duce crude estimates.
[2] See Shelagh Weir, “A Clash of Fundamentalisms: Wahhabism in Yemen,” Middle East Report 204 (July-September 1997) and A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen (London: British Museum Press, forthcoming).
[3] Gabriele vom Bruck, “Being a Zaydi in the Absence of an Imam: Doctrinal Revisions, Religious Instruction and the (Re-)Invention of Ritual,” in Rémy Leveau, Franck Mermier and Udo Steinbach, eds. Le Yémen contemporain (Paris: Editions Karthala, 1999), pp. 169-192. See also Bernard Haykel, “Rebellion, Migration or Consultative Democracy? The Zaydis and Their Detractors in Yemen,” in ibid., pp. 193-202.
[4] The most comprehensive collection of accusations is listed in Arab News (online), June 27, 2004.
[5] The letter was published in the Yemen Times on June 28, 2004.

Filed under: