Yemeni government runs into trouble as it cracks down on Zaydi Islamic movement

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Nasr Salem

Jumada' al-Akhirah 14, 1425 2004-08-01

Special Reports

by Nasr Salem (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 6, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1425)

In the years since the Bush administration intensified its war on Islamic movements opposing its hegemony, it has focused considerable attention on salafi groups in Yemen. Now the Yemeni government has also launched a crackdown on the country’s Zaydi community. NASR SALEM reports.

Some ten years after emerging intact from a secessionist civil war, internal strife is stalking Yemen once again. More than a month of armed clashes between government troops and supporters of an anti-Western Zaydi Shi'ah ‘alim and activist in the rugged mountains of northern Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia, have cost more than 300 lives on both sides; hundreds have been injured.

The fighting erupted on June 18, when the Yemeni authorities tried to arrest ‘alim Hussein Badr al-Din al-Huthi, head of an organisation known as al-Shabab al-Mu'min ("the Faithful Young"). Tension between the government and followers of Huthi has been escalating since the US-led invasion of Iraq last year. Huthi's supporters have since been organizing weekly anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations after Friday prayers, and calling on their fellow Yemenis to boycott American products. Hundreds have been arrested every week.

In its all-out offensive, the Yemeni army has been using heavy artillery, tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to inch its way, in the face of fierce resistance, towards Huthi's redoubt in the Maran district of Sa'ada province, where about 3,000 fighters are believed to be with him. Sa'ada is about 150 kilometres (almost 100 miles) north of Sana'a, the capital. During the first two weeks of fighting, government forces, assisted by tribal fighters, seized three outposts in Jaria, Harban and Malhat, thus tightening the noose around Huthi and his supporters in Jumeima in Maran's rugged mountains. Casualties among Huthi's followers include Amir al-Din Abd al-Majid al-Hamzi (alias Abd al-Muttalib), his field commander, Zayd bin Ali al-Huthi, Abdallah Aidha al-Ruzami, his deputy, another high-ranking aide of Huthi's whose name is not currently known, and (according to some reports) Badr al-Din al-Huthi, his brother.

Government troops and security forces have arrested hundreds of Huthi's supporters, students and ulama in Sa'ada and other parts of the country, particularly in Sana'a. Scores of his followers have turned themselves in, accompanied by tribal leaders, to the authorities. Many of those held are reportedly detained incomunicado and are believed to be at risk of torture. Among those arrested is a senior Yemeni judge, Muhammad Luqman, who is accused of being a supporter of Huthi's, and of urging young people to join al-Shabab al-Mu'min in its fight against the government. Luqman, who presides over a court in the western Haraz region, was arrested on July 14 after the country's Supreme Council of Justice withdrew his judicial immunity.

Opposition groups have accused the government of indiscriminate use of force, resulting in the killing of scores of civilians and the displacement of thousands of families. A statement issued by a number of opposition groups has appealed to President Ali Abdallah Salih to lift the siege that the army imposed on a number of civilian areas in Sa'ada. The statement said: "The bloodshed, destruction of homes and assaults on people are truly regrettable and a cause of sorrow."

For its part, Amnesty International has written a letter to Dr Rashad Muhammad al-Alimi, Yemen's interior minister, expressing concern over civilian deaths as a result of heavy weaponry being used by government troops. The letter calls for an investigation into the killing of civilians, for the protection of detainees from torture, and for a strict observance of international standards of law-enforcement and the use of force. Civil society groups in Sa'ada have also appealed to international relief organisations to come urgently to the rescue of thousands of families threatened by the siege.

Government officials, pro-government media, journalists and intellectuals have levelled a battery of accusations – some plausible but others verging on the fantastic – against Huthi. They accuse him of seeking to re-establish a monarchy in Yemen by force and of stirring disorder and turmoil by organising anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations. They say that Huthi has incited sectarian strife, set up an underground armed militia, and issued fatwas describing most governments ruling in Muslim countries as "illegitimate."

Officials and pro-government sources accuse Huthi's supporters, whom they often label "deviant elements," "outlaws," "extremists" and "troublemakers," of disrupting law and order, committing acts of vandalism, opening fire on government officials and institutions, blocking roads, breaking into mosques, preventing people from paying their zakah to the government and levying zakah revenues themselves, intimidating mosque imams to adopt anti-US rhetoric in their khutbas, and flying the flag of a foreign party instead of the national flag. Huthi has reportedly adopted his own flag, a white banner with a tree at its centre, and his supporters have raised the flag of the Lebanese Hizbullah on government buildings that they took over in the remote mountainous areas under their control in Sa'ada province.

But Hizbullah has denied any links with Huthi. A statement issued by Hizbullah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah said: "The Hizbullah policy is not to intervene in the affairs of other countries." Muhammad Ra'ad, who heads Hizbullah's parliamentary bloc, said: "Hizbullah's struggle and jihad are limited at the present to the Lebanese territories." The Lebanese legislator added: "Many people around the world take pride in Hizbullah's accomplishments … Those who raise a Hizbullah flag here or there are not necessarily members of Hizbullah."

In a meeting with ulama in early July, president Salih called on Huthi to turn himself in, promising him a fair trial. "I call on you to surrender and I guarantee a fair process in the accusations against you," he said, adding that the ulama would appoint "a lawyer to defend Huthi."

In an interview with a Lebanese daily, Salih resorted to the age-old tactic of blaming unidentified foreign elements for his country's current troubles. He told al-Mustaqbal (July 8): "We accuse outside parties, but we cannot point the finger at any country or party." He explained that Huthi "pays $100 to every man who repeats his slogans, which is 18,000 Yemeni rials. This is a huge sum. Where does he get all this money? Who is the party financing him and to what end? We are leading an investigation into this but it is not possible that a local source is financing him." Salih proceeded to say that "books and other publications, expensively published, about Shi'ism and printed in Beirut have been found on Huthi's supporters" who have been captured.

Yet nothing beats the bizarre accusation that Huthi has proclaimed himself Amir al-Mu'minin (commander or leader of the believers). In an interview with the Qatar-based pan-Arab satellite TV station al-Jazeera, Huthi completely denied such accusations, saying that "these are allegations publicized by the government in order to cover up the hideous crime it committed against us." He accused the US ambassador to Yemen of instigating the military campaign against his group.

Huthi, a former member of parliament, explained that al-Shabab al-Mu'min is not a political organisation, but rather a cultural forum, founded in 1991, that aims to alert people to the dangers facing the Ummah. But the dogged resistance his supporters have put up and the weapons they are using, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-personnel mines, suggest that for some time they have been buying and stockpiling large quantities of arms and ammunition, in preparation for a confrontation with the government.

Mediation efforts in late June, led by MPs (including Huthi's brother Yahya, who belongs to the ruling General People's Congress Party), ulama and others, ostensibly intended to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis, have reached deadlock. The two-day mediation was doomed to failure from the beginning. Not only was the delegation appointed and dispatched by the government, but it tried nothing but to persuade Huthi to turn himself in – a demand that Huthi rejected, urging the government to cancel the arrest warrant against him. Huthi accused some of the mediators of atheism and insisted on "revolting" against the Yemeni authorities. One MP who took part in the unsuccessful ‘mediation' accused the army of undermining the mediators' efforts.

In a telephone interview with AFP on July 20, Huthi said: "I am working for the propagation of the Qur'an and the fight against the United States and Israel." He described President Salih as "a tyrant who does not have any legitimacy … and who wants to please America and Israel, by sacrificing the blood of his own people." Huthi is an alim and political activist from Yemen's Zaydi community, a Shi'ah sect dominant in the northwestern parts of Yemen that comprises a large minority (about 45 percent) of the population of Yemen (which is estimated to be 20 million). He was a member of parliament for the al-Haqq Party from 1993 to 1997, when he broke away from al-Haqq to lead al-Shabab al-Mu'min. After his stint in parliament, Huthi turned to teaching at religious schools in the Sa'ada area, where his lectures and lessons became an ideal opportunity for him to attract followers.

Zaydism is an offshoot of Shi'ism that was formed by the followers of Zayd bin Ali bin al-Hussein, who led an abortive armed revolt against the Umayyad caliph Hisham bin Abd al-Malik in 740, and was killed in it. Zayd's son, Yahya, suffered a similar fate in 743. The political history of Yemen under Islam is closely intertwined with Zaydism. A Zaydi state was established in Sa'ada in the ninth century AD. A succession of Zaydi rulers continued to rule parts of the country until 1962, when the last Zaydi imam, Hamid al-Din, was overthrown by a military coup led by Arab nationalist officers. Zaydis believe that revolting against an unjust ruler is a religious duty. Throughout the centuries the Zaydis of Yemen have ensconced themselves in their mountainous fortresses in the northern parts of the country, fighting many battles to preserve their independence and ward off outside powers.

In some ways, the rise of militant Zaydi groups such as Huthi's can be read as an outburst of the pent-up frustrations and anxieties of a community that longs to regain its past privileged standing after decades of declining political fortunes. These frustrations have been compounded by a sense of peril arising from the increasing popularity of Salafism in the country during the last two decades. The current wave of Yemeni Salafism draws its inspiration from local men who were introduced to the ideas of Salafi writers while studying in neighbouring Saudi Arabia or volunteering to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many of the Salafis have also joined the Islah party, headed by Shaykh Abdallah bin Hussein al-Ahmar. Some Salafi elements have been involved in attacks against Zaydi institutions, and some of their leaders, such as Muqbil al-Wadi'i, have made no secret of their intent to destroy the tombs of the Zaydi imams.

The rise of Yemeni Salafism, with its intense anti-Shi'ah tendencies, has brought about a Zaydi religious and political revival, led by a new generation of Zaydi ulama, who have set up their own religious educational institutions and embarked on an intense effort to publish Zaydi manuscripts, booklets and polemical works. On the political level, al-Haqq party was established primarily to defend the political interests of Yemen's Zaydis in the face of the Salafi challenge.

However, the government's ferocious onslaught on Huthi's supporters is largely motivated by president Salih's desire to curry favour with the US government by cracking down on anti-US groups in his country. Since September 11, 2001, the Yemeni authorities have launched a campaign against all groups and elements suspected of being al-Qa'ida sympathisers.

In early July a government decree ordered the closure of all unlicensed Islamic schools in the country. A cabinet statement said: "Due to the linkage between extremism, militancy and certain curricula that promote deviant and alien ideologies, the Cabinet has issued orders for the immediate closure of all schools and centres violating the education law." The fact that foreign pressure is behind this closure of schools has been noticed by many. In its attempt to bring Islamic schools under its control, in 1999 the government had incorporated some 140 such schools, run by Shi'ites, Salafis and Sufis, into the government's school system, but many had still continued to function independently.

As the fighting continues to rage in the Sa'ada region, Yemeni officials have vowed that, in the words of Salih, "Huthi will surrender at his own will, or will be forced to." The authorities have also offered a 10-million-rial bounty for anyone who captures him or provides information leading to his capture. But the rugged mountainous terrain of Maran makes the heavy-battalion tactics adopted by government forces highly inadequate, and affords Huthi's supporters the opportunity to engage these forces on ground that they themselves know well. In the past few weeks Huthi's fighters have managed to dislodge government troops from more than one mountain top in the area, and this is not likely to be the end of their military success.

In his interview with al-Mustaqbal, Salih said: "We will never give up, whatever our sacrifices." In that case, to judge by the last few weeks, Salih had better prepare to make great and costly sacrifices soon.

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