The sudden announcement by Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih that he will step down in 2006 in favor of “young blood” has set the country and the region abuzz. Having led the northern Yemen Arab Republic from 1978, and then assumed the presidency of the whole of Yemen following the country’s unification in 1990, Salih has enjoyed the second-longest rule in the Arab world, behind only Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. As speculation rages that Salih’s announcement is only a ploy, that the “young blood” is his son Ahmad or that he does in fact intend to relinquish power, one thing is certain: Yemen is in the midst of a prolonged security and economic crisis that has exposed the fragility of the state and widened cracks in the country’s political system.

Two days after the president’s announcement on July 17, the government lifted a set of popular state subsidies of fuel. The resulting riots, which the regime quashed with soldiers and tanks, killed 22 people and wounded 375, according to government figures. Unofficial estimates put the number of fatalities at 39 or more. These disturbances highlighted Yemen’s dire economic straits and the deep suspicions of the public about uncontrolled regime corruption. They also took place against the backdrop of the government’s year-old fight with militant Islamists who the regime once supported but who are now raising once dormant questions about the right of Salih’s regime to rule Yemen.

Two Rounds of Fighting

Since June 2004, government forces and tribal forces paid by the government have waged a sporadic though unexpectedly bloody battle with a group calling itself the Believing Youth based in the province of Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia. The Believing Youth, whose numbers are estimated to be between 1,000 and 3,000, were originally the followers of the Zaydi cleric Hussein al-Huthi, a former Member of Parliament for the Zaydi party Hizb al-Haqq (1993-1997). Zaydism is a form of Shiite Islam that is prevalent in northern Yemen’s highlands.

While the government has tried to downplay the conflict—Salih declared it “practically overcome” in mid-April 2005—various media and eyewitness accounts attest that people were still being killed in significant numbers until at least mid-May. Although accurate figures are impossible to obtain, the government claimed in May that the number of soldiers and civilians killed in two rounds of fighting had been 525, with 2,708 wounded. The real figure is likely to be much higher than this, and does not include the number of rebels killed. Amnesty International reports that civilian targets have been attacked by “security forces reportedly [using] heavy weaponry, including helicopter gunships.” A large number of houses have been destroyed during the conflict, some intentionally and others as a result of indiscriminate shelling.

The first round of fighting was centered in Saada, where al-Huthi and his followers were able to pound away at government troops from mountainous redoubts, inflicting many casualties. Mass arrests were carried out in the province, and Amnesty International reports that an unknown number of suspected al-Huthi followers remain held incommunicado by the government. Hussein al-Huthi was killed in the fighting in September 2004. Tensions eased during the six months following al-Huthi’s death, whereupon the leadership of the Believing Youth was passed on to his elderly father Badr al-Din.

In early 2005, Badr al-Din al-Huthi was invited by Salih to the capital Sanaa to discuss a permanent settlement that was to include the release of prisoners and compensation payments for lives and properties lost during the fighting. The government had hoped to obtain assurances that the rebellion would not resume. Badr al-Din stayed in Sanaa for about two months. Accounts vary as to the exact outcome of the talks. The government claimed that he was granted immunity, while al-Huthi claimed that the government reneged on its promise to release prisoners and stop pursuing suspected sympathizers with the uprising. Two weeks after he returned to Saada in March, a police station and a military vehicle were attacked in surrounding areas. Serious fighting erupted and spread to other cities, including the streets of the capital. While there has been relative calm since mid-May and negotiations continue over the possibility of his surrender, Badr al-Din al-Huthi is apparently still at large. Another of his sons, Abd al-Malik, was quoted in the July 6 edition of the Yemeni weekly al-Wasat vowing that the remaining militants would “stay in the mountains” until the prisoners are released.

Murky Origins

The origins of the Huthi rebellion remain murky. Fighting broke out in Saada in the summer of 2004, shortly after the regularly televised Friday sermon at Sanaa’s Grand Mosque appeared via satellite with a banner in the background reading “death to America, death to Israel.” The banner was a clear, if hardly unique challenge to the regime, whose cooperation with US anti-terrorism efforts has been more public than the regime would have liked. But while Hussein al-Huthi had a record of strong statements against US policy in the Middle East, it is unclear that the Yemeni state’s relationship with the US precipitated his revolt. The March 9 edition of al-Wasat quoted Badr al-Din as saying that his son was motivated by the need to “protect Islam.”

The regime charges that the Believing Youth call for the reestablishment of the Zaydi imamate that governed northern Yemen for over 1,000 years (with brief interruptions) until 1962. As a sayyid—one who claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali—al-Huthi would theoretically be eligible to claim the title of imam for himself. According to another charge that has circulated, al-Huthi did in fact proclaim himself imam. The Huthis and their former political party Hizb al-Haqq deny both of these politically explosive accusations.

Revival of the imamate is an idea which is rejected by Yemen’s Sunni majority and many Zaydi tribespeople, and which stands in contradiction to the goal of the 1962 revolution to weaken the age-old power of the sayyids over other Zaydis who are not members of the religious elite. As a secular former military officer and a Zaydi tribesman who is not a sayyid, President Salih embodies that goal. In 1990, Zaydi religious leaders, including figures now involved in Yemen’s two Zaydi political parties, held a conference in Sanaa, where it was declared that the leader of the state was not required to be a descendant of the Prophet and agreed that “the fair and the strong” should rule Yemen. The declaration was, of course, issued under pressure from Salih.

There is some ambiguity in the Huthis’ denials of aspirations to bring the imamate back. Badr al-Din was quoted in the March 9 al-Wasat to the effect that the imamate is the “most preferable” system of government for Yemen if the “true and legitimate” imam is present. “Any just believer” can rule the country, he said, if the imam is not present. When asked whether he considered Salih a legitimate ruler, Badr al-Din declined to answer, telling the interviewer: “Do not put me in a difficult position.” It is this broader objection to the regime, rather than talk of the imamate, that resonates with disenchanted Yemenis.

Complex Web of Alliances

The persistent fighting in Saada has drawn accusations from Shiite religious luminaries in Iran and Iraq that the government of a majority-Sunni country has launched a sectarian campaign against the Shiite minority. In May, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri of Iran said: “It is not acceptable that the Shiites be persecuted for their faith in a country which defines itself as Islamic.” The same month, Montazeri’s counterpart in Najaf, Ali al-Sistani, reportedly accused Yemen’s government of waging “a kind of war” against the Zaydi population. Though the Huthis themselves have spoken of sectarian divisions, to frame the conflict as a Sunni-Shiite one is to misstate the issue.

A little history is in order. Prior to 1990, the Republic of Yemen was divided into two states, the Yemen Arab Republic (or North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen). The Sunni former south and its largest city, Aden, had been a part of the British Empire since 1839. Not long after the British were removed in 1967, the state declared itself Marxist. The large majority of the Sunnis of Yemen follow the moderate Shafi’i school of jurisprudence. Although there was a small Sunni majority in the former north, rulers have almost always been of the Zaydi sect. Since 1962, only one Sunni president has held office (1967-1974). In the unified republic that exists today, Zaydis account for roughly 20-25 percent of the population but continue to dominate the country’s political system, Salih being the salient case in point.

Sheikh Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar is another prominent but non-sayyid Zaydi who played a key role in overthrowing the Zaydi imamate and establishing the Yemen Arab Republic. As the preeminent tribal leader in Yemen, the speaker of Parliament and the head of Islah, the largest opposition political party, he is widely considered to be the second most powerful person in the country. Despite his being Zaydi, the party that he heads is largely inspired by Sunni doctrine as espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood. Zaydi republicans like Salih and Ahmar relied on Sunni Muslims, particularly the Brotherhood, to counter threats from the formerly Marxist south.

Along with religious leaders, the Zaydi northern tribes have, since the 1962 revolution against the imamate and the end of the resulting civil war in 1970, generally formed the other major base of support for northern governments. Shortly after the Egyptians withdrew from the war in 1967, the northern tribes began to consolidate their position in the military and extend their political influence, giving them unprecedented power. The northern tribal confederations (particularly the Hashid confederation) fought for the Salih regime against the south before unification and afterward during the 1994 civil war. The divisions in national Yemeni politics are not religious sectarian divisions per se, but are based on a complex web of tribal, social, religious and politically expedient alliances.

“Wahhabi Attack”

On the very local level, however, sectarian divisions may have something to do with the Huthi rebellion. The province of Saada is part of the Zaydi tribal area that has traditionally been the heartland of the Yemeni regime. After the 1962 revolution, Saada remained loyal to pro-imamate “royalists” until 1970. The region did not, however, really come under state control until late in that decade and early in the next, at which time it saw the introduction of the “scientific institutes,” religious schools propagating the ideas of the puritanical Sunni Islam adhered to in neighboring Saudi Arabia. The scientific institutes were state schools informally controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and financed by Saudi Arabia. These modern, “Wahhabi” institutes competed with the older Zaydi parochial schools, as well as public state schools, but did not replace either. However, the number of Zaydi schools decreased as youths from ordinary Zaydi families became attracted to the scientific institutes’ emphasis upon the equality of all Muslims—as opposed to the special status claimed by the sayyids.

Hussein al-Huthi’s initial rise to prominence was a direct product of Salih’s style of playing both sides against the middle. After favoring Wahhabi upstarts in the 1980s against the sayyids, some of whom retained pro-imamate sympathies, Salih backed al-Huthi throughout the 1990s in an attempt to offset the growing strength of Wahhabism as taught in the scientific institutes and some of the mosques of Saada. Salih adopted this strategy as part of a balancing act against Saudi influence (and reportedly also a check upon the power of regime crony, military strongman and Wahhabi sympathizer Ali Muhsin). After the 1994 civil war, Salih supported the establishment of a Zaydi militia under the command of al-Huthi, who also revived the Zaydi parochial school system in the northwest of the country. These are the schools that the regime is now closing for allegedly teaching intolerance. While this is, in some cases, a reasonable claim, the Zaydi schools are being pursued far more seriously than the equally intolerant scientific institutes.

During the recent fighting, Badr al-Din al-Huthi accused the government of stirring up sectarian sentiment against the Zaydi religious elite, telling al-Wasat that the puritanical Sunnis’ “enmity toward us is as strong as can be.” His son Abd al-Malik broadened the charge, saying that the governor of Saada has “continued the Wahhabi attack” on Zaydism by replacing the prayer leaders at Zaydi mosques and tolerating the statements of some Wahhabis that the Zaydis are not Muslims at all.

Badr al-Din hinted at another line of ideological attack on the regime when he was asked by the al-Wasat interviewer for his opinion of democracy as provided for in the Yemeni constitution. While the regime does not adhere to the constitution in any consistent fashion, the idea that Yemen is in the midst of a transition to democracy remains an idea from which the regime derives a considerable measure of legitimacy. Badr al-Din answered only: “We are for justice and we know nothing else.”

Economic Woes

Despite the lingering charges of wanting to restore the imamate, and despite its possible hostility to democracy, the Huthi movement has struck a chord with segments of society extending beyond its own members simply because it is standing up to a regime seen as feckless and corrupt.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. The World Bank estimates that just over 40 percent of the population live in poverty. This condition was likely exacerbated by the government’s July 19 decision, in accordance with an economic “reform” package recommended by the International Monetary Fund in 1995, to remove state subsidies on diesel fuel and fuel products. Overnight, the price of gasoline nearly doubled while the price of diesel rose by nearly 150 percent. Many farms in Yemen pump ground water using diesel that, prior to the subsidy removal, was sold to the public for approximately 50 percent of its international market price. With the production of market crops so directly dependent on irrigation, prices of many basic commodities move up and down with the price of diesel. In the days following the removal of the subsidies, prices of non-fuel products appeared to have increased by around 20 percent. On July 26, Salih slightly reduced the fuel prices in an effort to ameliorate the criticism being leveled at the government in the aftermath of the July 20-21 unrest.

Rumors of even larger price increases ran rampant leading up to the subsidy removal. But the regime undertook no public information campaign to dispel them, perhaps because they did not wish to call attention to diesel prices at all. According to a well-informed ex-parliamentarian from the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), high-ranking regime officials smuggled large quantities of subsidized diesel from Yemen’s southern ports to the Horn of Africa, transferring at least 20 to 30 percent of the public money used to pay for the subsidies into their own pockets. Concrete evidence of the extent of smuggling is impossible to obtain, but the rapid increase in Yemen’s diesel imports makes a circumstantial case.

Though Yemen has its own small oilfields, 70 percent of the diesel consumed per annum must be brought in from elsewhere. While the amounts of other commodities imported remained fairly constant between 1998 and 2003, imports of “petroleum and petroleum products” (the vast majority of which is diesel) leapt from 6.44 percent of all imports in 1998 to 14.86 percent in 2003. The fact that all other categories of imports (including equipment that uses diesel such as power-generating machinery and transport vehicles) actually decreased slightly in this period, combined with the fact that Yemen has no strategic civil or military diesel reserve, make smuggling the only explanation for the increase, or at least a great deal of it. In any event, much of the Yemeni public is convinced that the regime is smuggling diesel. As Islah member Nasser Arman asked some months before the subsidy was lifted, “When the government admits that the subsidies on the oil derivatives go to the pockets of smugglers, why doesn’t it audit even one of them?”


The deteriorating economy is only one of the regime’s problems. In the eyes of most Yemenis, the spate of explosions, demonstrations, assassinations and gunfights witnessed throughout the spring and summer of 2005 are likely related to the uprising in Saada—and are signs that the regime is losing its grip on the country.

In mid-March there were two days of strikes and demonstrations across the country over the introduction of a sales tax that articulated anger over the government’s failure to respond to rising poverty. The closure of the US and British embassies for a few days in early April coincided with reports of several attacks on government installations and personnel. On March 29, there was a hand grenade attack on uniformed security guards outside the gates to the old city (Bab al-Yemen) in Sanaa. There were subsequent unconfirmed reports of a grenade attack on the Ministry of Defense on April 5, followed by a second attack in Bab al-Yemen, and one in central Tahrir Square. On April 25, there was an attempted assassination of a military official as he rode in a Defense Ministry vehicle past the Customs Office. The would-be assassin, who authorities say was a member of the Believing Youth, threw a grenade at the car but was quickly shot dead. The intermittent gun battles between government forces and alleged al-Huthi supporters, in Sanaa and beyond, and the almost daily low flyovers by military jets all add to general public unease.

In the prevailing tension, the al-Huthi rebellion has come to mean many things to many people. Some Yemenis have latched onto President Salih’s claim that the Saada uprising is a “foreign conspiracy.” They might cite the fact that well-known Zaydi preacher Yahya Hussein al-Dailami was sentenced to death in late May, after being found guilty of supporting the Huthi rebellion. The government-run Yemen Observer reported that al-Dailami was found guilty of “having contacts with the state of Iran with the aim of harming the diplomatic and political position of Yemen.” The report quoted the trial judge as saying that al-Dailami had “traveled to Iran and made contact with the Iranian state seeking support for an Islamic revolution in Yemen.” Some Yemenis believe the president’s other claim that domestic opposition groups, namely the two Zaydi parties, the Union of Popular Forces (UPF) and Hizb al-Haqq, are backing Huthi in an attempt to destabilize the regime. Still others see it as the potential unraveling of a delicate balance of religious and tribal interests that has been the regime’s source of power for so long.

The confusion surrounding the causes and effects of the uprising is due to the virtual media blackout imposed by the government on the topic of Saada. At least two foreign journalists trying to gain access to the area have been briefly jailed and international organizations are restricted from entering the area. Local journalists have had little more success. Misinformation therefore abounds in both the official and independent media. Some endeavor to provide accurate reporting, some resort to guesswork and rumor, and others simply trade insults. The independent Yemen Times recently published an article that labeled a foreign journalist writing about events in Saada “a docile pupil of a…mentally retarded monkey” (with reference to the leader of the UPF).

Meanwhile, the regime harasses members of the UPF and Hizb al-Haqq, recently raiding the UPF’s offices and arresting several leaders on the grounds that they are inciting forces to overthrow the government. Both of these parties are quite small, and the UPF is little more than a handful of intellectuals. One of the UPF’s leaders argues that the real reason for the attacks on his party is the president’s concern over the strength of their efforts to consolidate democracy in the country. While this is an unlikely suggestion, it is indicative of an opposition that is holding onto the hope that, despite evidence to the contrary, their desire for democracy is having an impact upon the regime, and indeed, Yemen’s future.

In the wake of the July 20-21 riots, the opposition has been careful to condemn both the government and the damage done by the rioters. In an official statement, a coalition of six opposition parties including Islah and the ruling party of the former South Yemen, the Yemeni Socialist Party, said that the government bears the responsibility for the chaos resulting from the removal of the subsidies. Highlighting the opposition’s generally reactive stance on political reform, the statement says the parties “will suspend dialogue with the ruling party until these measures are reviewed and until a proper reform process is implemented.”

In the atmosphere of confusion that prevails in Yemen, al-Huthi’s implied claim that the government is illegitimate has made his rebellion a symbol of the country’s extensive problems and the regime’s narrowing support base. While most Yemenis (including the Zaydi community) consider the views of the Believing Youth to be extreme, their ability to recruit and inspire sympathy is a testament to the increasing unpopularity of the government.

How to cite this article:

Sarah Phillips "Cracks in the Yemeni System," Middle East Report Online, July 28, 2005.

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