The seizure of power in Yemen by an armed Shia Muslim movement known as the Houthis has thrown the country into disarray and provoked concerns about further Middle East instability. “The Houthis are victims of their own success,” says April Longley Alley, a Dubai-based researcher at the International Crisis Group. After rapid advances beyond their northern base, the Houthis now face blowback as the rival al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has allied with some tribes to repulse their advances. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has perceived the ascent of the Iran-aligned Houthis on its southern border as a new front in its contest with Iran for regional dominance. These developments, Alley says, threaten to add a sectarian dimension to a political crisis that has mounted since Yemenis overthrew long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh during the Arab uprisings in 2011.
The Houthis have their roots in a movement that started in northern Yemen in the late 1980s to protect and revive Zaydi religious and cultural traditions. Zaydism is a branch of Shia Islam different from the Twelver Shiism of Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. The Zaydis make up the majority in the far north but they’re a minority in Yemen. Starting in the 1980s [Sunni Muslim] Salafi religious institutes implanted themselves in these traditionally Zaydi areas with state support. Zaydis felt under attack and also felt the sting of political exclusion and marginalization.
The Houthis became politicized under [their late leader] Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. He opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and shifted the movement toward political activism. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was seen as supportive of the United States, so Hussein’s critique was a challenge to Saleh. What started as a police action to arrest Hussein metastasized quickly in the north, and in 2004 the first of six rounds of armed conflict between followers of Hussein and the Yemeni state began.
After the 2011 uprising, the Houthis joined a coalition of Yemeni stakeholders who had a long history of fighting the Saleh regime. The differences between the groups, [which included] some of their traditional adversaries, became evident relatively quickly.
Picture: Brian Harrington Spier from Shanghai, China (Mukayras, Al Bayda, Yemen: 1966) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons