Anti-Houthi graffiti on the streets of Sanaa, according to local activists (March 2022)

The Popular Ire Against the Houthis


Wed, 18-01-2023 01:57 PM, Aden

Farida Ahmed (South24) 

Over the past few days, there have been growing popular indignation in Sanaa in North Yemen to denounce the Houthis' corruption. The Houthis are accused of plundering resources and sowing chaos in the areas under their control. Moreover, institutions, merchants and locals have been impoverished due to the sway of influential figures affiliated with the Houthis. These voices are led by some social media activists. This ultimately pushed the Houthis to launch a crackdown that targeted some of them according to local reports. Some activists affiliated with the Houthis played an inciting role during the war. In a joint statement, over 120 human right organizations condemned the Houthi mass arrests against activists and social media users for practicing their freedom of expression right. 

The popular ire has come concurrently with the deterioration of the living conditions in the country after 8 years of conflict. During this period, the basic services such as health care, education and drinking water have been disrupted. Moreover, the Houthis carried out widespread cultural, ideological and religious changes. Although the UN-sponsored truce, which lasted for 6 months from April to October 2022, succeeded in reducing the severity of the military operations between the internationally-recognized government and the Houthis, the humanitarian crisis has remained a main dilemma for the majority of Yemeni people. 

The escalation of popular rejection of the Houthis has stirred concerns within the Houthi organs. Strict measures were taken to counter possible demonstrations and monitor any grassroot moves in Sanaa and the nearby cities. This has been clear through the Houthi deployment of security patrols at Sanaa entrances. They also banned the tribal armed elements from entering the city center. Additionally, the Houthi security patrols have been deployed in Sanaa University, the main streets and the entrances of popular markets. Furthermore, the group instructed their members to go to their work venues threatening to punish the absentees. This reflects a state of real discontent towards the Iran-backed group. This comes concurrently with the large-scale popular uprising in Tehran and other Iranian cities which have increasingly grown and expanded although the Khamenei regime has exerted massive efforts and carried out extrajudicial executions to suppress them.

Previous demonstrations

Houthi-controlled areas have witnessed several uprisings during the war which broke out in 2014. However, the Houthis quickly suppressed them in a violent way. The most prominent one was the “Hajour Uprising” which erupted in January 2019 in Hajjah governorate in the north west of state. The Houthis engaged in confrontations with the Hajour tribes in Kushar District which is the latter's main stronghold. The Houthis besieged the tribes there because the latter decided to face them and engaged in battles against the group for more than 2 months in which the Houthis lost many of their fighters. The group prevented the Hajour Tribes from accessing food, drinking water, medicines and medical equipment in order to tighten the siege on more than 100000 persons in the district. The tribes lost the battle due to the lack of support from the Yemeni government and the Arab Coalition. 

In 2020, Al Awad and Radman tribes of Al-Taffah and Sawadiyah districts in Al-Bayda made a mobilization call led by the tribal Sheikh Yasser Al-Awadi to denounce what they described as the Houthi “crimes” against them. The tribes asked the legitimate government to intervene to support “Al-Bayda Uprising”. This came after the Houthis killed a woman inside her house which was deemed by Al-Bayda tribes as being a “shame”. However, the uprising quickly led to the defeat of the “Al Awad Tribes" by the Houthis due to the lack of support and the neutral approach adopted by some tribes. 

Years earlier, Dhamar governorate witnessed the eruption of the "Utmah Uprising" against the Houthis into two phases. The first one began in August 2015 and lasted for one month by which they were able to control their areas despite losing a number of their fighters. The second one was in 2017 after many of their armed elements were killed and injured. Moreover, private and public properties were plundered and ruined. Despite the slight support from the legitimate government and the Arab Coalition, the Utmah Tribes were disappointed by the lack of response from the surrounding tribes which gradually led to their defeat. 

On December 2nd of the same year, Sanaa also witnessed a battle against the Houthis after former President ”Ali Abdullah Saleh” called the Yemeni people to rise up against the “Houthi invasion”. However, this call led to his death two days later after being shot. 

Earlier this year, an anti-Houthis campaign broke out including writings and political slogans similar to the Arab Spring revolution. However, it made a limited impact amid the heavy security grip. They looted the houses which had such slogans. Dozens of people suspected of being behind the anti-Houthi campaign were arrested. Moreover, the Houthis banned gatherings in the rural areas and the cities under their control.

Why now and what is missing?

It is axiomatic that uprisings intensify with the escalation of repression and violence against them. However, it seems that the recent popular uproar in the Houthi-controlled areas has not amounted to the level of “uprising” as depicted by the anti-Houthi media platforms. The most prominent reason behind this is that these popular moves have been carried out unilaterally and lack collectivity. Moreover, they don’t enjoy sufficient support from prominent political or community figures, active trade unions and labor groups. Furthermore, there has been a fragile intelligence presence of the internationally-recognized government in these areas. Additionally, the anti-Houthi actors have been preoccupied by their internal disputes in South Yemen and the liberated Northern areas. Some Northern parties and the pro-Saudi voices have been busy in political and media mobilization against the Southerners’ demands to expel the First Military District from Wadi Hadramout to face the Houthis and complete the implementation of the military provisions of the Riyadh Agreement. This has been an obstacle against focusing on what has happened in Sanaa. Over the past years, the internationally-recognized government has dealt with the uprising in a marginal way as it has not responded to the areas which rose up against the Houthis over the years of conflict. Accordingly, most of them receded in record time. 

The argument of suspending the military action due to the de-facto truce may be a persuasive one for raising the idea of an "uprising" against the Houthis who don’t accept renewing the truce again. It is remarkable that the media coverage is much bigger than actions on ground as it deals with the event with an emotional exaggeration. The government has tried to resort to incitement in the street but on the other hand, it has allowed ongoing flow of money, fuel and goods to the ports controlled by the armed Houthis under pressure from Riyadh

Some may raise doubts towards the Houthi motives behind arresting their affiliates. They believe that what happened is a made-up operation to spread terror among other dissenting voices who are present in the Houthi-controlled areas and who wait for the proper time to rise up against the group. Regardless of the facts on the ground, what is certain is that the rise of such popular voices, whether spontaneous or organized, exacerbates the state of intense tension and anxiety among the Houthis. It is not in the Houthi interest that things turn against them currently. This is specifically related to Omani endeavors to mediate between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia through secret talks which kicked off months ago upon which the group bets on to make political and economic gains.

Taking into consideration the matter of popular ire or what the state media calls "hunger revolution", it is important for the parties who support such activity to think in a more creative and logical way. An uprising can't be made without organized community forces as well as intelligence and political support. The availability of these capabilities will likely serve as a tributary and a guide for the popular energy to enact this activity and achieve its minimum level. Otherwise, it will be futile and could lead to more casualties in light of the harsh security grip in the Houthi-controlled areas.

Farida Ahmed 

Executive Director of South24 Center for News and Studies 

UprisingHouthisNorth YemenHunger RevolutionPLCYemeni GovernmentIranArab Coalition