Smoke billows from a fire at a Houthi-controlled military site after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Sanaa, Yemen, June 3, 2015.
Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Reuters

In Yemen’s tattered capital city, Sanaa, the fortified walls around the sprawling, now vacant Saudi embassy have become one of the favorite hangout spots for the Houthi militia group that seized the capital in September of last year.

The rebel group’s supporters have covered the steel gates with graffiti. A large white skull floats forebodingly next to the head of a black snake—mouth open, fangs bared. The combination is meant to send a message to Yemen’s oil-rich neighbor, Saudi Arabia, to keep out.

But the graffiti has done little to stop the Saudi-led coalition from targeting the Houthis and their allies in Yemen. Almost daily for the last six months, the coalition has bombed Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen’s major cities. And as a result of their weakening position, the Houthis’ initial bold words, anti-Saudi cross-border attacks, and recent killings of dozens of coalition troops in a rocket attack are no longer winning it any points among civilians. Nor are its military assaults on its rivals, which together with Saudi-led air strikes have led to heavy civilian casualties that human rights groups have said may amount to war crimes.

Indeed, locals who used to generally support the Houthis now debate which is worse: the Houthis or the Saudis. Meanwhile, defections from the movement have multiplied, and its leadership is divided between conservative hard-liners—the so-called men of the podiums (named after the religious figures who follow Houthi founder Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi) who favor the use of force—and the pragmatists who are pushing for a political settlement.

Houthi militants stand in the house of Houthi leader Yahya Aiydh, after Saudi-led air strikes destroyed it in Yemen's capital Sanaa, September 8, 2015.
Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

THE THIEVES OF GOD

Once a small insurgency group in the northern hinterland of Saada, over the past year, the Shiite Zaydi Houthis amassed weaponry and grew in power as they marched southward, striking alliances with other disenchanted tribes and political factions while winning the support of anti-Islamists, both liberals and conservatives alike. The Houthis even managed to strike a détente with Yemen’s armed forces, who have remained loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After 32 years in power, six of which were spent fighting the Houthis, Saleh stepped down as part of a United Nations–brokered power-sharing deal after protesters called for him to resign during the 2011 Arab Spring. He, like the Houthis, opposes the new government that has declared Aden the temporary capital.

With the backing of several tribal factions, the Houthis were able to overtake Sanaa in September 2014. Once in power, the die-hard fighters, who have long promoted themselves as the best-equipped force to beat Islamic extremists in Yemen, promised to combat corruption and enact drastic reforms to end the poisonous, decades-long inequality between tribes and regions. Abdul Malek al-Houthi, the group’s young, bearded leader, also promised, in a lengthy speech to thousands of supporters, a number of symbolic reforms, including constructing a park to replace the massive army barracks.

Yet the Houthis have failed to make the transition from militiamen to statesmen. For one, the Houthis’ southward push from Sanaa into predominantly Sunni areas is bolstering al Qaeda. Under the banner of combating terrorism, the Houthis are instead seeding sectarianism and propelling Sunni tribesmen to strike alliances with al Qaeda since it is the only organized Sunni armed group that has confronted the Shiite Houthis. With rising lawlessness in the newly coalition-“liberated” cities in the south, it is believed that Islamic extremists, including al Qaeda and affiliates of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as the ISIS), are filling this new security vacuum.

Locals who used to generally support the Houthis now debate which is worse: the Houthis or the Saudis.

“No one is serving Houthis like al Qaeda and no one is serving al Qaeda like Houthis,” wrote Hussein al-Wadie, a prominent Yemeni Zaydi researcher and scholar, summing up the way the two groups have antagonized each other to rally the people’s support.

And instead of the promised park, the Houthis have used the prison cells inside the army barracks to detain opponents. As one former Houthi sympathizer explained to me, “The Houthis found themselves facing towering waves, but they don’t even know how to swim.” Other disillusioned supporters and one-time allies speak of the Houthis’ Orwellian practices (such as installing loyalists in every state institution to monitor employees and weed out suspicious activity); grave incompetence in state management; and extensive crackdowns on opponents—not to mention kidnappings, torture, and the silencing of media.

At the same time, however, the Houthi government has blacklisted dozens of government employees over mere suspicions that they had links to Islamists and also jailed hundreds of top- and middle-ranking leaders of the competing Islamist Islah Party. To secure their release, detainees had to either appear on the Houthis’ television network Al Masirah (“the March”) and denounce the Saudi-led offensive or sign a paper pledging their support of the Houthis’ “Quranic Movement.” Among the most prominent imprisoned Islah leader is Mohammed Qahtan, who was asked to denounce the Saudi offensive on television and refused, according to his son Zayed. A top Houthi politician, Dhaif Allah al-Shami, justified the arrests. “We are in a state of war,” he told me.

The Houthi militias have violently attacked other opponents as well, namely, the media and intellectuals. They have systematically blown up hundreds of their enemies’ houses. In Yemen’s tribal and rural areas, this practice is hugely symbolic; a man who is unable to protect his house, according to tribal standards, brings shame to himself and is exiled from his village. A whole cluster of Yemeni politicians, technocrats, and tribal leaders fled to Saudi Arabia, Southeast Asia, and Turkey for fear of retaliatory attacks.

People seek cover from rising dust as a Qatari military cargo plane carrying aid lands at the international airport of Yemen's southern port city of Aden, August 1, 2015.
Reuters

They were probably right to run: a mere personal clash with a Houthi member can lead to prison time. Lawyer Sadel al-Moalami, a legal consultant to the Ministry of Culture and an Islah affiliate, recalled being detained just for serving as a ministry lawyer to settle a lawsuit against a Houthi member. Al-Moalami told me that on June 7, Abu Baroud, a militia commander, and his armed men stormed his house. They blindfolded him and led him to an undisclosed location, where they interrogated him about his political affiliations for seven hours. They finally deposited him at a police station, where he was set free. Like Baroud, the Houthis have rounded up dozens of journalists, professors, and young people, stormed dozens of media institutions, and shut down Yemen’s most popular news sites.

The Houthis’ economic management is just as bad as their human rights record. Critics say that the group was behind last month’s liberation of fuel prices, which provided the Houthis with more funds to finance the war but left consumers, who are already squeezed given the severe fuel shortage, to the mercy of the volatile international market. The group has long called for a boycott of American-made products, but local media claim that the Houthis have seized the factories and warehouses of Western franchises such as KFC and Baskin-Robbins, operated by business tycoons such as the al-Ahmar family. And instead of shutting them down, they changed the staff and took over operations to collect the revenues, the paper Al Sharea reported in an extensive investigation. The Houthis also imposed an extra tax on businesses, justifying it as being for the “war effort.” In one incident last month, female drivers staged a spontaneous protest by setting fire to tires at a Sanaa gas station. They were outraged by the owner’s refusal to sell them gas even though they had waited for two days in the mile-long queue. When the two women accused the station manager of smuggling the gas to the Houthis, he replied, “It went to the war effort.”

UNRAVELING SUPPORT

Given the Houthis’ problems, it might not be surprising that their success on the battlefield has also been waning.

With help from the Saudi Arabia–led coalition, the exiled Yemeni government, which just returned to Aden, has now recaptured at least five of Yemen’s 22 provinces. At this point, the Houthis fully control around six other provinces. Intense ground fighting and air strikes are engulfing the central region. The ground fighting and air strikes have left entire cities devastated and pushed the already impoverished nation to the brink of famine, according to international relief groups. By the latest UN estimates, more than 4,000 civilians have died, some 19,000 were wounded, more than 1.5 million have been displaced, and 13 million now lack steady access to food.

In a khat-chewing session in Sanaa, Amin Jouma, a one-time supporter of the Houthis, said that the popularity of the Houthis is weakening, “but it’s not the time to turn against them.” Like many Yemenis, he cited the Arab proverb “I am against my cousin, but I and my cousin are against the enemies.” The Saudis are the real enemies, he remarked.

Meanwhile, the Saudi-led coalition continues to build strength in the key eastern province of Marib, home to Yemen’s oil infrastructure. The aim is to clear the way for recapturing Sanaa.

But so far, the coalition’s bombings have mostly deepened the tribal, regional, and sectarian divisions within Yemen. Most of the southerners are supporters of the Saudi-led coalition after suffering under the Houthis’ military campaign. Northerners, on the other hand, who are mostly Shiite Zaydis, carry deep animosity toward the Saudis for waging a merciless air campaign that doesn’t differentiate between civilian and military targets. The bombings have forced entire neighborhoods in Sanaa to seek refuge in the outskirts of the capital or in rural areas.

The conflict has also created rifts within the Houthi movement. Ali al-Bukhaiti, a former top Houthi politician, defected in September. In a series of Facebook postings, he dubbed the group “the thieves of God.”Ali al-Emad, the new head of the Revolutionary Committee for Oversight, which was blamed for a series of human rights violations and mismanagement, acknowledged the organization’s mistakes in state management and blamed the abuses on a faction of hard-liners. Al-Emad belongs to the more political savvy and pragmatic faction. Former member Abdu Bishr has left the Supreme Revolutionary Committee, a Houthi ruling body that formed in February, and accused the group of creating unaccountable bodies to use as a façade from which to rule behind. Another former member, Mohammed al-Megaleh, wrote on his Facebook page, “The power is . . . in hands of people we don’t know and we can’t reach.”

Prominent Zaydi scholar Mohammed Azzan explained that the strength of different factions vary according to circumstance. Hard-liners tend to find their power, and have a louder voice, during times of military success. But now, said Azzan, “at a time of defeat, the sane voices can speak up.” Azzan is also a co-founder of the religious group from which the Houthis emerged. 

As for Yemenis themselves, there are many who believe that the Houthis are, perhaps, the lesser evil when compared with the Saudis and the chaos they have brought to the southern region.

In a khat-chewing session in Sanaa, Amin Jouma, a one-time supporter of the Houthis, said that the popularity of the Houthis is weakening, “but it’s not the time to turn against them.” Like many Yemenis, he cited the Arab proverb “I am against my cousin, but I and my cousin are against the enemies.” The Saudis are the real enemies, he remarked.

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