Post-Saleh Yemen: A Brewing Battle Between Houthis and Salafis

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a rally to demand the trial of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the northwestern city of Saada 25 November 2011. The sign in the center reads, "Signing of the Gulf initiative is an American-made." (Photo: REUTERS - Al-Houthi Rebel Group - Handout)

By: Jamal Jubran

Published Monday, December 5, 2011

When President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, a fog lifted, revealing a brewing conflict between Houthis and Salafis in the northern Yemeni region of Dammaj.

Sanaa - A fractured picture of a post-Saleh Yemen is starting to emerge as Houthis battle Salafis in the north of the country. If no solution to the strife is found soon, it may snowball into an uncontrollable situation, possibly leading to sectarian war.

Tensions between the two groups have now reached fever pitch. This was made abundantly clear in a press conference held by a number of journalists at their syndicate’s headquarters in Sanaa after returning from a visit to Dammaj.

It soon emerged that the journalists were conveying only one point of view, demonstrating a bias towards the Salafis. They maintained that the people of the Dammaj region had been suffering from a seven-week blockade by the Houthis, who were preventing food and medicine from entering.

This prompted a pro-Houthi audience member to rebuke the journalists’ claims. He distributed a statement, signed by a member of the Houthi political bureau, Abu Malek al-Fichy, claiming that there is an attempt to distract the revolution youth with secondary issues.

But the media escalation did not stop there. It intensified with the fighting on the ground, especially after Yemen’s Salafis vowed, during a conference held Wednesday under the slogan “Supporting the Oppressed in Dammaj,” to defend themselves by all legitimate means. They accused Houthis of “striving to establish a Shia state in the north of Yemen and south of Saudi Arabia.”

The recent tensions in the north have raised questions about Houthi plans for the future, especially after they had announced their refusal to accept the Gulf initiative and its implementation mechanisms.

The Houthis have actively taken part in the revolution in Yemen since its earliest days. They were determined to get rid of the regime headed at the time by Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, among other relatives of the president. Saleh and al-Ahmar have led six wars against the Houthis in Saada.

But the the game changed drastically when al-Ahmar, their most prominent opponent, declared that he had defected to the ranks of the revolution.

But, according to Mohammed Abdel Salam, the official Houthi spokesman, their opposition to al-Ahmar did not change even after he joined the ranks of the revolution.

In an interview with Al-Akhbar, Abdel Salam pointed out that the Houthis had demanded al-Ahmar “apologize to the people of the northern provinces for all that he had committed when he was the right hand of Saleh’s criminal regime.”

But the apology came too late. On the eve of Eid al-Adha, al-Ahmar delivered a speech in which he declared that he was ready to stand trial for all that was committed against the people of Yemen during his years in the regime. However, he did not explicitly apologize for the crimes that were committed in the six Saada wars.

It seems the trial will not go ahead after the signing of the Gulf initiative, and that al-Ahmar will retain his position as head of the army for at least two more years, the duration of the transitional period, which made the Houthis feel that they were being cheated.

Writer Alawi Hussein does not share the Houthis point of view. As the revolution gained momentum and it became certain that Saleh’s regime would not survive, the Houthis resolved that they had to prepare for the next stage.

They needed “to focus their attention on their most prominent enemy, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and his allies, the Yemeni Congregation of Reform Party,” according to Hussein.

Hussein told Al-Akhbar that he believed that the Houthis’ initiated the next stage when they headed to the Jouf province, attempting to take control of the area after Saleh’s forces’ sudden retreat from their camp, leaving behind an arsenal of weapons and equipment.

“Confirmed information suggested that the withdrawal of Saleh’s forces from their Jouf camp was done in coordination with the Houthis. This move was orchestrated by the National Security Agency and the Houthis in order to turn the tables of the game and have the Houthis confront the Yemeni Congregation for Reform party and their leader, Major-General al-Ahmar,” asserted Hussein.

Spokesman for the Houthi information office, Mohammad Abdel Salam, denied any coordination between the Houthis and security forces.

In an attempt to strengthen ties with the various political movements in Yemen -- especially those who will be influential after Saleh steps aside -- the Houthis have begun to secretly coordinate with political leaders in the south, such as Hassan Baoum, former leader of the Socialist Party.

Baoum was one of the first to uphold the slogan “determining destiny,” considering it a legitimate right for the people of southern Yemen to determine their own destiny and to disassociate with the regime in the north.

The collaboration and coordination between the Houthis and the socialists was unveiled around three months ago, when Fadi Baoum, Hassan Baoum’s son, was arrested in the Jouf province on his way back from Saada after a meeting with Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

The arrest was declared to have been conducted by forces of the regime, but it then emerged that it was the doing of the Yemeni Congregation of Reform Party in order to elicit information from Fadi about his meeting with al-Houthi.

Researcher Ahmed Saleh says that this incident revealed a long and intimate partnership between Houthis and Yemen’s southern movement.

“This coordination is merely that of two wounded parties who see Saleh’s regime as a mutual enemy,” added Saleh in an interview with Al-Akhbar.

Saleh does not foresee a future for such an alliance after the fall of the ruling regime, because both parties will then seek to establish self-governance in their respective areas of influence.

Researcher Ali al-Mouaid is not convinced that the Houthis’ main goal is self-governance.

“There are clear schisms and divisions within the state, and the Houthis are actually governing Saada solely with the power they have; all facts today point in the direction that Houthis can easily declare their autonomy, but I don’t think that’s what they are seeking.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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