The spiral of violence may very well have continued if the Arab Spring had not spread to Yemen. The uprisings diverted the regime's attention and opened political space that the Houthis eagerly helped to fill. Taking on the alias Ansar Allah, or "supporters of god," the group's anti-establishment, anti-American message resonated with Yemenis looking for change. The Houthis made inroads with both the Zaydis, who make up 45 percent of the Yemeni population, and others who, after years of witnessing mismanagement and corruption, had lost respect for the established political parties.
"The Houthis are evolving as a group," said April Alley, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Rebranding themselves as Ansar Allah is certainly an indication that they are trying to become a more national movement as opposed to associating themselves with a family name."
Their territorial expansion has been as significant as their political one. The Houthis are now virtually in control of Saada city and much of the rest of the governorate. They man their own security checkpoints and boast well-organized police and paramilitary wings. Their green-lettered banners are ubiquitous. Just as importantly, Houthi support is also spreading beyond their stronghold to areas where their presence had been comparatively muted -- including Sanaa, the capital.
The Houthis' quick transformation from a repressed insurgent group to a potent political force has left the political establishment little choice but to seek to integrate it. This is partly a function of broader efforts to boost political inclusion following Saleh's ouster. But it's also a recognition of the Houthis' formidable physical strength and broadening appeal. Progress has so far been admirable, but has resulted in few tangible solutions.
Amid the shelled-out buildings and piles of rubble that sit as stark reminders of the all too recent past, a tense calm settled over Saada following presidential elections in 2012. "There is cooperation from the government, especially after the success of the popular revolution," said Yahiya al-Mahdi, a deputy governor of the province and Ansar Allah adherent. He goes on to explain that there is a tacit agreement on security in which the sides each "play a role." The more general consensus, however, is that the Houthis hold the upper hand in the relationship.
Despite early comments by Houthi leaders, the group has also shown a surprising willingness to participate in the political transition process. "People were at a crossroads: war or dialogue," said Abdulkareem Jadban, a Houthi member of parliament. "And dialogue was the best way to arrive at a solution for Yemen."
Jadban is referring to the ongoing National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a pillar of the internationally brokered transition roadmap that was adopted as a condition of Saleh relinquishing the presidency. Held in Sanaa, the six-month conference -- which may very well be extended beyond its scheduled Sept. 18 end date -- is meant to bring together 565 people from across the political spectrum to discuss the new constitution and other matters fundamental to the future of the state. How to deal with Saada is among the most important issues being tackled. Ansar Allah was allotted 35 seats and its delegates have been active contributors.