Sep 21st 2014
IT IS almost exactly a decade since the death of Hussein al-Houthi, a radical cleric who hoped to revive the Zaydi Shia Islam unique to north Yemen. Mr Houthi left behind a movement that had few followers outside his home province of Saada and a few university students in the capital, Sana’a. Since then, capitalising on the turmoil in the wake of the expulsion of Ali Abdullah al-Saleh in 2011 and disgruntlement among Yemenis at the slow pace of change, the Houthis have gone from a bullied minority to a powerful militia in control of an expanding chunk of the country. Some suspect they receive support from Iran, though the accusation has never been substantiated. Since mid-August Houthi supporters, both Shia and Sunni, have been disrupting the capital with roadblocks and sit-ins—all of which were ostensibly peaceful, but carried the not-so-hidden threat of a return to fighting unless they were granted more of a say in running the country.
On September 18th they indeed turned violent, sparking fears that Sana'a could once again be engulfed by the type of chaos not seen since 2011. Sana’a has been rocked by shelling and gunfire as militias arriving from Saada have clashed with tribal fighters and Sunni Islamist militias said to be loyal to Islah, the country’s main Sunni Islamist party. Islah stands to lose the most from the Houthis’ rise and its men have been fighting them in the north of country for much of the past year.
Although the Houthis are ostensibly making political demands, including cheaper fuel, the fighting has personal overtones. Houthi men have fought a military unit loyal to Major General Ali Mohsen, a conservative Sunni commander who led the military campaign of Mr Saleh against the Houthis in Saada in 2004-2010. The Houthis blame him their founder’s death and for six years of devastating conflict. Mr Mohsen has pledged to send the fighters back to Yemen’s north, but few Yemeni military units appear interested in doing so. Yemen’s military remains split between supporters of Mr Mohsen and Mr Saleh, whom the military commander deserted during the 2011.
With scores reported killed, on September 20th Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, announced that the Houthis and the government had agreed a peace deal. A day later the prime minister, Muhammad Basindwa, announced he would resign to facilitate the deal. The agreement would see the Houthis quit Sana’a and lay down their arms in exchange for the government meeting their three main demands—lower fuel prices, a new government with more Houthi representation and the implementation of policies agreed on during peace talks that ended in January.
Few Yemenis are convinced that the deal will even be signed, let alone honoured. Yemeni officials are suspicious that the Houthis have bigger goals in mind. The government has been negotiating with the Houthis since August, but every time the group is offered a deal, their leaders increased their demands, says a senior official close to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the president. When talks failed earlier this year, Houthi fighters arrived in the capital. “They don’t want a political solution,” says the official. “They want a state within a state, like Hizbullah,” he says, referring to the powerful Shia movement in Lebanon.