The lesson of the Houthis' success

The lesson of the Houthis' success
Comment: Nations must fight sectarianism at home, building national unity based on citizenship, if they are to avoid Yemen's fate.
5 min read
27 Feb, 2015
The Houthis seized Yemen's capital, and have since forced the president to flee [AFP]

The Houthi movement has followed a model of power politics seen in revolutions from the past, in which rebel forces master the game of alliances, placating some opponents and using force against others who are harder to placate.

The Houthis have been unconcerned by the gap between words and deeds, which they exploit in their favour as long as this serves them in achieving their goals. Their leadership has always been determined to take power.

The Houthis formed a strong militia which colluded with army officers loyal to the former president against the alliance that emerged with the revolution. The Houthis also collaborated with leaders of the northern tribes who discovered common ground with them when Saudi Arabia stopped sending them money.

This was a far cry from the spontaneous Arab revolutions of 2011, whose goal was not to take power.

Yemen and the manufacture of sectarianism: Read more of Azmi Bishara's analysis here

Perhaps the Arab revolutionaries can learn from the Houthis, if they discount their factional and sectarian character and goals.

Regional implications

The problem of the Houthi model is that it may be fit for places other than Yemen, and for times other than our own.

But although it has no future in Yemen, because of its social and political configuration, it is important to stop and analyse the Houthi model and its implications for the current situation in the Mashreq.

The Arab East was carved up by the colonial powers after the First World War into the countries that exist today, with their ethnic and religious diversity. But the Arab states have all failed to build nations based on citizenship and common cultural heritage. 

The reasons for this failure are too many to count, but one of the most important is the colonial legacy in the structures of the state and the army.

Despite adopting a nationalist ideology, the military were influenced the most by the colonial-era social legacy in relation to the army's structure.

The military was also influenced by its rural roots, relying on traditional bonds of kinship, which are often linked to sectarian and tribal affiliations, when appointing people loyal to leaders in official posts.

Zionism and the Palestine catastrophe also played a major role in foiling any Arab programme for democratisation and modernisation, precursors of which had appeared in parts of the Arab world in the inter-war years.

When the states of the Mashreq were exposed to the major crises of modern times, such as the invasion of Iraq and the popular uprisings in Syria and Yemen, there was a dramatic rise of politicised social structures at the expense of the state, which soon rallied its social bases, and their sectarian, tribal and regional allegiances.

The outcome of this process was to turn the revolutions into fierce civil conflicts. Of course, a discourse of victimisation emerges in this context, not by oppressed people suffering from real discrimination and demanding equality, but in the form of a factional discourse representing notions of good and bad, oppressed and oppressors, in a given community, in whose name its representatives aspire to gain power.

The age of sectarian militias

Returning to the Houthis, we find that it is difficult for them to use a discourse of victimisation in relation to the Zaidiya.

Indeed, those who have ruled Yemen have generally been of Zaidi origin. And in any case the Houthis do not represent the Zaidiya as much as they represent the influences of regional powers on a singular faction within it.

While they are indeed a part of Yemen, and must be taken into account in any political settlement there, this does not qualify them to rule Yemen.

     A broad sectarian civil war in the Mashreq is no longer an apocalyptic scenario; we are living in its beginning.

In Iraq, a sectarian militia, "Popular Mobilization", independent of Baghdad, has emerged to fight the Islamic State group.

This is the latest in a series of sectarian militias to appear since the invasion of Iraq.

On the other side is IS, which has marginalised all resistance movements. Sunni Arabs are left between the rock and the hard place that the two sides represent.

They have been victimised once, twice and now three times - by the US occupation, the sectarian administration in Baghdad and sectarian militias such as Popular Mobilisation.

It is quite possible to envisage a scenario where the militias of Popular Mobilisation and other sectarian forces take control of Baghdad, as with the Houthi model.

In Syria, the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan militias fighting alongside the regime are growing in significance. Recently, we have seen how their role in the battles in southern Syria has become increasingly important. So much so that it is unlikely that the Syrian regime would survive for long without them.

So can it be free from their influence?

Avoiding the apocalypse

A broad sectarian civil war in the Mashreq is no longer an apocalyptic scenario; we are living in its beginning. People who are familiar with history hope the war does not last 100 years, or even 30 years, like in 16th century Europe, before the Arabs realise that the only way out is the nation-state and equal citizenship.

But the Arab regimes cannot be expected to reach such a conclusion.

They are either in a state of collapse or no longer in control of their decision-making. It is crucial for people to understand this reality and that civil wars cannot be avoided without a willingness to compromise and tolerate others.

But even here there is danger.

History shows that power-sharing can perpetuate identity politics, and lead to new civil wars or permanently fragile accords. It is therefore preferable for compromise solutions, from the outset, to be based on equal citizenship and a strong central government that can take the initiative and engage in nation-building.

It is important to take into account the fact that it is unwise to resort to elections to arbitrate disputes from day one.

Instead, it is best to seek accord in the beginning, while encouraging the establishment of national parties and integrationist political movements on non-sectarian and non-ethnic bases, to avoid relying on power-sharing to reconcile different identities in society.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.