The Crisis in Yemen: Guest Comment by Willis
John M. Willis, who has taught Middle East at New York University’s Dept. of Education, writes in about Yemen:
‘ I just wanted to add a few notes to your reading of the recent violence in Haydan outside of Sa’dah in northern Yemen. The recent violence instigated by [Zaidi Shiite leader] Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi has little to do with any direct inspiration from Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, and certainly no theological/interpretive inspiration, at least as I see it.
Al-Huthi most recently drew the attention of the authorities with a series of inflammatory khutbas [sermons] criticizing the Israeli occupation and of course the American occupation. Since 9/11 imams [prayer leaders] have been instructed not to directly criticize America for fear of “incitement.” The Yemeni government has been on edge ever since, especially with the blatant presence of U.S. special forces in Yemen, the imperious behavior of Ambassador Edmund Hull (also referred as “al-Mandub al-Sami” [“The Exalted Envoy”]), the assassination of Sinan al-Harithi, et al, by CIA drone, the assassination of Garalla Umar by fringe Islah [Sunni fundamentalist] members, and of course their forced near-silence on the Iraq invasion.
In light of the extreme unpopularity of these actions (and compounded by the implementation of severe economic shock-therapy this–including civil service reform, the application of a 10% sales tax, and the lifting of subsidies on basic foodstuffs) the Yemeni government is especially keen to delegitimize any local opposition.
In the case of al-Huthi, this opposition is serious because he has declared himself the “Imam” in very strict Zaydi terms–although few take him seriously. [The Imam had been a Zaidi political and religious leader who dominated Yemen until the Republican revolution of the 1960s]. Despite the fact that the moderate Zaydi party, the Hizb al-Haqq, has urged him to surrender to government forces, his actions have still resurrected the latent post-revolutionary fear of a return to the Imamate. It is still not rhetorically possible, for example, to talk about Imam Yahya Hamid al-Din (r. 1904-1948) in anything but derisive terms. The fear, of course, is that the regime of [current Arab nationalist leader] Ali Abdallah Salih will himself be compared to the Imam (and in many ways, the current style of government is different from the late Imamate only be degree).
Huthi’s actions have raised the spectre of the Zaydi “khuruj” or rising against the unjust ruler–a doctrine that has no place in a system of one-party rule. Nor does it sit well with the Islah party (the coalition of the Hashid tribe and its Shaykh, Abdallah al-Ahmar and the salafis inspired by Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani). That is to say, that by clamping down on local salafi institutions (such as Zindani’s “madaris ‘ilmiyya”)he cannot possibly but treat a “zaydi” uprising harshly. When he risks the ire of Islah and even Saudi Arabia, pounding the Zaydis is an easy way to prove the “Islamic” and “revolutionary” nature of his troubled regime. (See the Islah view of the events at the followin link: https://www.alsahwa-yemen.net/view_sub1.asp?s_no=2300).
Also, I should add that there is a sizeable group of Shiite refugees from Iraq who were taken in after the iraq war. Many of them have founded Twelver schools with Iranian funding, but I never seen that they have had any influence outside of the Iraqi community.
My feeling then, is that the offer of Yemeni troops is both meant to mollify the Americans and the Yemeni population, where you were correct to note that Arabism still carries rhetorical weight. Salih is in an extremely difficult position at the moment, so I am sure he is looking for anything that ease him through this year.
John M. Willis ‘