Ghaith Abdul-Ahad writes: Early last year, the Houthis, followers of a revivalist anti-Western cleric, moved out of their northern highlands and marched south towards Sanaa, promising to end corruption, to fight al-Qaida, challenge US hegemony – al-Qaida and the Americans were allies in the subjugation of Muslims, they said – and raise Yemenis out of poverty and powerlessness into a shining and more dignified future. In 2011 President Saleh had been toppled to be replaced by his deputy, the aloof Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had allowed al-Islah – the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – to control many offices of state. One crony kleptocratic elite had made way for another. Yemen wanted change and the Houthis faced little or no resistance.
The Houthis marched towards Sanaa slowly but with determination. They laid siege to sectarian rivals, fought tribal leaders aligned with those rivals and outmanoeuvred their own allies. Towns fell before their troops, army bases surrendered or switched allegiance without much of a fight and the houses of those who dared to oppose them were demolished with explosives. In mid-September they built protest camps around Sanaa, ostensibly to demonstrate against a planned hike on fuel prices but effectively laying siege to the city. The army did what it usually does and shot and killed several demonstrators. Two days later, on 21 September, after defeating tribal and military units affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Sanaa went down without much of a crash or a thud. The UN special envoy and the president came up with an agreement that enshrined the Houthis as the new masters of the city, and to preserve the façade of the political process and safeguard their jobs they declared that in every other way it was business as usual.
With the help of Popular Committees, representing their military wing, the Houthis raided and blockaded ministries, scrutinised bank accounts and removed ministers and officials from office. They even confiscated that sacred sceptre of the state, the departmental rubber stamps. The state was held hostage. The Supreme Revolutionary Committee became the authority that wielded political power and was housed in the city centre in a white hotel building with square balconies and green stone cornicing. From the early hours of the morning until late at night a motley crowd came and went through its gates. They included farmers seeking to address injustices inflicted by wealthy landlords, tribal leaders pledging allegiance, maverick politicians seeking positions in the new administration or businessmen looking for ways to avoid punishment. Even tribesmen who had long bickered over blood feuds came seeking a solution. Everyone wanted absolution from the new rulers of Sanaa. [Continue reading…]