La Croix L’Hebdo : Who are the Houthis?
Luca Nevola : It was initially a study group of young Zaïd believers, created in 1992 (Zaïdism is the third branch of Shiism, closer in certain aspects, particularly legal ones, to Sunnism than to Twelver Shiism, the majority in the Middle East , Editor’s note). He appeared in the north of the country, in Sa’dah.
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The Houthis waged a war against the central state from 2004 to 2009 because of a sense of stigma and marginalization. In 2011, they founded Ansar Allah (“Followers of God”). This cultural movement aimed to create a legitimate facade for the Houthis, moving them away from their label of northern rebels or mere supporters of leader Hussein Al Houthi, killed in 2004.
How did this tiny group, once very local and whose religious and political influence was discreet and limited, seize a large part of Yemen?
LN : The Arab Spring allowed the Houthi movement to spread outside its governorate of Sa’dah. Before that, it was almost impossible to get information about this group. After 2011, they came to the forefront of politics. They have integrated a large number of civil society leaders into their movement to appear as a credible political current.
They also attracted young leaders from the Yemeni Arab Spring. At the same time, the Houthis have gradually infiltrated the networks of their political enemies. And thanks to their alliance with former President Ali Abdallah Saleh and his party, the General People’s Congress (CPG), which had branches everywhere, they were able to break into areas to which they once had no access. Thanks to this, they were able to carry out this coup in 2014.
Did the great corruption of the central state and poverty facilitate the progress of the Houthis?
LN : The Houthis present themselves as defenders of the people, anti-imperialists, opposing the United States and Israel. They were really good at tackling social and economic issues, especially during the great movement of protests after the end of gasoline subsidies, decided in 2014 by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Their strong point was also that until then, they had never been in political leadership.
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Moreover, before the coup, they tried to appear as a moderate force, not claiming their Zaidite faith, nor their religious schools or even less their Hashemite lineage, descended from the Prophet Muhammad.
Despite a repressive, liberticidal and patronage policy, the Houthis are still in power, six years after their coup. Are they supported by part of the population?
LN : They arrest journalists, political opponents, they monitor citizens with their intelligence service… However, there is also popular support for a specific reason: many people are against the aggression of the Arab coalition. There is real opposition to the intervention and interference of foreign powers in the internal affairs of Yemen.