Democracy Lab

Coming In From the Cold

For years the Houthis have been derided as subversives and separatists. Now they're sitting at the table in Sanaa.

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.

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.

The Houthis are playing politics in the more traditional sense as well. They have, for example, been cooperating with other formerly marginalized groups in Yemen, such as factions of the southern independence movement (Hirak) and the socialist party. They are also seriously considering forming an official political party or coalition through which they can contest elections.

Although political dialogue is preferable to conflict, there is a long way still to go. The Houthis have won limited concessions during the NDC, the most notable of which is an official apology from the government for the Saada wars. The NDC committee tasked with addressing the issue has also agreed on 37 other points, including provisions related to disarmament, the release of prisoners and religious tolerance, but implementation is another matter entirely. In short, a permanent Saada solution remains elusive and the road is becoming rockier.

"Our relationship with the government is very tense," said Jadban in June, just days after government forces shot a number of Houthi protesters in front of the National Security Bureau in Sanaa (official claims that demonstrators were armed have not been independently substantiated). Later that month, a suicide bomber attacked a market in Saada, leaving at least two dead.

More recently, there have been an escalating series of clashes between the Houthis and followers of Sunni Islam (Salafis as well as tribesmen supporting the Islamist Islah party). The re-emergence of sectarian and political conflict is a development that worries many observers. The Houthis are armed with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons. So are their enemies. And no one has ruled out using force in cases of self-defense, a justification with blurry connotations. Return to open hostilities could have destabilizing ripple effects.

Up till now though, the Houthis' swift post-Arab Spring growth and arrival on the political scene have been accommodated relatively smoothly. But as Yemen's transition continues, the way forward is still uncertain. In part this is because the Houthis have yet to present a political platform that placates their skeptics.

"If the people of Saada want independence, we can take it. But we don't want anything except a modern civil state that rules all Yemenis," proclaimed Abu Mohammed, a resident of Saada and a Houthi supporter, more bluntly echoing the vague stance of the movement's leadership. Others add, in equally nebulous terms, that the group is prepared to cede ground once a capable and tolerant government is in place.

This highlights the point that the Houthi issue does not exist in a vacuum. A solution for them is inextricably linked to debates about the independence of the south, whether Yemen should become a federal state, and how the constitution should be written, among other foundational topics. A fully articulated Houthi position may therefore not emerge until a more basic question is answered. As April Alley of ICG asks, "After moving out of this transition period, how does power settle?"

That remains anyone's guess. Yet while Yemeni politics has long been a delicate balancing act, it's already clear that the Houthis currently carry more weight than ever.


Democracy Lab

The Ghosts of Benghazi

Did the killing of the U.S. ambassador a year ago cast a curse on the city he loved?

TRIPOLI, Libya — A year to the day after the killing of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the radicals were back -- detonating a massive car bomb that destroyed the city's foreign ministry building.

Unlike a year ago, the attack was timed to avoid casualties, detonating before staff came into work, but it was hard to miss the symbolism -- local people say that the building housed a previous U.S. consulate, dating from the time of King Idris, half a century before. The bomb left the building, home to the government's eastern department of foreign affairs, a smoking ruin.

Across town the smoke-stained yellow walls of the Benghazi villa where Ambassador Stevens died mark the place when the bubble burst on Libya in the eyes of the world.

For twelve months prior to the attack on the U.S. mission, from the ending of the NATO air strikes through elections the following summer, western powers could count intervention here a success. A ruthless tyrant, Muammar al-Qaddafi, had been vanquished and democracy installed. Britain, France, and the United States, prime movers in the military intervention, could tick the success box because democracy had taken root.

That changed in one night of violence here at this compound, now deserted and eerily quiet. Burned-out vehicles rust by the main gates, and piles of white sandbags, their sides split, spill their muddy contents. Inside the burned out villa where Stevens's body was found, little post-it stickers remain where they were affixed by the FBI team who visited last October.

For the outside world, the death of the first U.S. ambassador to be slain since 1979 brought a new narrative to Libya. It was the place where a top U.S. official could be killed, and nobody would be brought to justice.

The effects of the killing have been profound. Among citizens of Benghazi, the inability or unwillingness of security agencies to prosecute those responsible underlines the chaos of the state.

That chaos has gone marching on from that day. Government has grown steadily weaker, to the point where rebels in the east and west have blockaded almost all Libya's oil production. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has threatened to use troops to shift the strikers, but many of those troops are manning the blockades. There is talk of Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi is the capital, breaking away from the rest of Libya, and taking the bulk of its oil production with it.

Diplomats in Tripoli, fearful of jihadist attack after a blitz of attacks and carjackings, are starting to talk of Libya, if not yet a failed state, then one that is failing by degrees. The national congress, elected with such enthusiasm last year, is on its last legs, the constitution it was supposed to supervise a distant mirage.

Western investors, so badly needed by a country ruined by four decades of idiosyncratic brutal rule, are staying away, frightened by the implications of a state unwilling to catch the killers of their most important guest.

Across the Atlantic, a blizzard of congressional inquiries leave more questions than answers about what happened at the U.S. mission that night. Not least because none mention the elephant in the room: the CIA facility that was based a mile from the consulate. What the CIA was up to in Benghazi, and whether those activities had a bearing on the attack, are questions yet to be asked, let alone answered.

Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist brigade blamed by many for the attack on the U.S. mission, was chased out of its base in the city by angry crowds ten days after the death of Stevens. Now they are back, and provoke mixed feelings in the city. Some continue to blame them for the attack. Others point to the social work they carry out in a city neglected by central government in far-away Tripoli. News that the Americans have issued indictments against suspects, including Ahmed Khattalah, has had little effect. Khattalah continues to meet journalists, insisting that he had gone to the burning compound to offer help that night.

In the skies above drones are a nightly presence, and in the day U.S. Navy E3 Orion surveillance planes make endless loops low over the city, triggering speculation that the United States is planning some sort of operation to arrest those suspects.

Libya's small army, made up of a clutch of special forces brigades, is waging a daily war against radical insurgents in the city, which exacts a daily toll in bombs and assassinations. Regular army officers complain that government resources are going not to regular units, but to the Libya Shield, a militia force that now garrisons Tripoli.

And foreign engagement, once so intimate, has retreated. U.S. diplomats spend most of their days penned into a fortress-like embassy compound, protected by miles of wire and fully armed Marines. 

France has abandoned its embassy building after the front was blown in by a terrorist bomb in April. Like the British, they continue to offer advice to the government, even as that government's grip on power disintegrates. Libya is less a central state than a collection of overlapping, sometimes warring, tribal and city fiefdoms.

Mistrust is the common currency, and the combination of a power vacuum, lack of jobs, and the prevalence of weapons has seen gangsterism and smuggling thrive. Congress is hamstrung by the walkout of the largest party, the center-right National Forces Alliance, and the decision of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Justice and Construction Party to suspend its party whip.

The Justice and Construction Party blame Zeidan for the troubles of Libya, but admit that with no obvious replacement candidate, they cannot get the votes to sack him. Zeidan insists the lack of reform of government institutions is the fault of congress and its muddled leadership. When one government police unit kidnapped Anoud Senussi, daughter of Qaddafi's former spy chief Abdullah, from another police unit last week, her southern tribe cut off the capital's water supply. It has now been partly restored, but the reality for the capital is regular power cuts, water shortages and long lines at gas stations -- and this in the country that holds Africa's largest oil reserves.

This was not the Libya that Stevens hoped to help build. Having served here both in the time of Qaddafi and as a special envoy to the rebel government during the civil war, he envisioned helping the country forward with a myriad of small initiatives. It is still possible to find his documents in the ruined compound. One lists the folks to be visited during that fateful week in Benghazi, a rich collection of businesses, civil rights organizations, and women's groups. His vision was of American assistance coming not through a few bold strokes, but by encouraging many smaller initiatives to help the fabric of society grow.

Others are carrying on that work. USAID continues to fund civil rights groups and the media. The European Union has a mission training customs and border control units. And despite the violence and privations, Libya's diaspora are returning home bringing valuable skills with them.

But the big things remain to be done. There is no real law. There is no real security. There is no real government. Later this month Libya is set to defy the International Criminal Court, holding the war crimes trials of Senussi and Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, despite orders that they be handed to The Hague, taking another step back from the international community that once cosseted it.

Benghazi, Libya's intellectual capital, where the revolution began two years ago, is now almost empty of foreigners. Western governments advise against all travel to the city. Vast housing projects on the edge of town remain unfinished, abandoned during the revolution. Most of the city depends on the state, through salaries or handouts, to survive. And with no sign to an end of the blockade of oil ports, the state's main source of revenue will soon run dry.