SANAA, Yemen — As a seemingly endless line of cars snaked its way into the northern Yemeni city of Saada, the atmosphere was festive. The people had come to attend the funeral of Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the man whose name became synonymous with one of the country's major political and religious movements. Yet while the Houthis and their supporters were no doubt mourning their leader's death, the event, which drew hundreds of thousands of attendees earlier this year, was also a celebration of sorts.
Such a gathering would have been unthinkable only a few years ago when the whole of Saada governorate was under a wartime blockade. But after nearly a decade of fighting with the central government, the Houthi movement has enjoyed a rapid post-Arab Spring increase in both support and legitimacy.
"They are sitting at the table negotiating with all the others, including those that fought these wars against them," said Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special advisor on Yemen, on a recent trip to Saada. This new dynamic is a welcome change from the recent past, when Yemeni officials routinely derided the Houthis as Iranian-backed "terrorists" (a claim the group vehemently denies). But the former rebels' slingshot-like entrance into mainstream politics is also raising serious concerns about what comes next.
How much autonomy the Houthis will ultimately acquire, and whether those at the table have the will to let peaceful negotiations take their course, are among the critical unanswered questions. Making the situation even more precarious is the fact that all of the armed groups participating in the discussions share a deep-seated mutual distrust. (The Houthis, for their part, say they command the loyalty of some 100,000 fighters, though the assertion is impossible to verify.) As long as those fears are held at bay, however, the era of unprecedented Houthi inclusion will continue.
The Houthi movement started as a confluence of revivalist Zaydi Islam, a moderate Shiite offshoot, and anti-American sentiment. In the early 2000s, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the son of a prominent Zaydi scholar, began giving Friday sermons against what he viewed as the growing dangers of American hegemony. The idea caught on, and with the help of their uncompromising slogan ("Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse the Jews! Victory to Islam!"), support for al-Houthi's movement grew. This soon attracted scrutiny from then-President Ali Abullah Saleh, who saw the movement as a potential threat to his control and the influence of his tribal allies.
Tensions reached a breaking point in 2004, when Saleh tried to have al-Houthi arrested. Three months of violence erupted, ending in al-Houthi's death at the hands of government forces. This first war was followed by five more in Saada and surrounding areas. Over the years thousands are thought to have died, while over 300,000 have been internally displaced.