Behind Saleh’s bizarre decision to turn against the Houthis

Radwan al-Sayed
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I never personally heard President Ali Abdulah Saleh make his famous statement that ruling Yemen was like “dancing on the heads of snakes.” In fact, the last time I saw him in 2004 with Doctor Abdulkarim al-Iryani, the Houthi movement was just getting started. I had seen its banners in Saada and Dahyan. I remember Saleh saying about the Houthi movement: “They are a demon Yemen has never known before, and it has known many demons throughout its modern and old history”. However, that evening the president’s focus was not so much on the danger posed by Houthis but on the maliciousness of al-Islah and the Yemeni socialist parties because they were humouring the Houthis.

Saleh called Houthis ‘demons, vampires’

President Saleh thought it was the state’s duty to support the Party of Truth, as he thought it was a traditional Zaydi party that was not dangerous. Hussein al-Houthi, the eldest brother of Abdelmalik, had won the elections on the lists he ran for. However, these two young men and perhaps thousands of other Yemeni Zaydis had fallen under the spell of Khomeini’s revolution. Sectarian differences between Zaydism and Imamism did not prevent them from being drawn to Iran after the end of the Iraq-Iran war. When I went with Lebanon’s mufti to visit Iran in 1999 (upon an invitation from Khamenei), I saw hundreds of Arab, African and Asian students at Imam Khomeini University, but most of them were from Yemen. In the 1990’s, when I met some Yemeni intellectuals and publishers saw me in Beirut, with whom I used to study in Yemen in the late 1980s, I used to ask them about the purpose of their visit. Some of them visited Beirut to publish or buy a book, while others wanted to get acquainted with the ‘Resistance’ and educate themselves about its culture.


What’s important is that it was not just Saleh who knew, but Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar (the sheikh of Hashed tribes) was also aware that what they were confronting in Yemen was not a revivalist Zaydi sect, but a fundamentalist movement trying to strike a balance between sanctifying Al-Bayt and their right to authority over the Shiite Twelver and the Zaydi institutions, which stipulates the pluralism of eligibility between the sons of Hassan and Husayn and who devolved power in northern Yemeni mountains for around 1,000 years until the revolution cast them away in 1962. If Khomeini managed to ignore the awaited imam and established an Imamite religious state, then why can’t Badereddine al-Houthi (the father of Hussein and Abdelmalik) resurrect the era of the Imamite which is always present among Zaydis?

This conviction quickly became a movement during the 1990’s amid the developments of the Iraq-Iran war and Saddam Hussein’s war on Kuwait – just like al-Qaeda expanded in the 1990’s. In the beginning, as in after 1995 and especially with the relapse with the Socialist Party in 1994 as well as due to al-Islah’s bullying behavior, Saleh tried to communicate with the Believing Youth Movement. He said what annoyed him most was their exaggerated sense of persecution as well as sense of marginalization. Sheikh Ahmar intervened and said that the idea of injustice is typical to the Twelver sect and that many Zaydi youths have now developed the same sensibility and this is paving the way for the resurgence of the Imamite against the republic. However Ahmar noted that they must acknowledge that the state and Al-Islah had ignored Zaydi religious parties. He added that they were not unjustly treated within the state’s official administration and army as most senior officers and half of the army and Republican Guards were Zaydis. Anyway, the president and Ahmar believed that all the new slogans were “sectarian,” and I said: “No, rather fundamentalist or extremist.” Therefore as they used injustice and Salafist pressures as an excuse, they announced their rebellion against Zaydism’s traditional origins.

So can these, even if they’re few, and their disobedience of top clerics and of the Party of the Truth be considered as defection? The president said: “Whatever the name is, these are alien to Yemen’s history and present”. He noted that citizens must enjoy their rights regardless of their sect, while the Imamite is a burden from the Middle Ages and we’ve gotten rid of it via the revolution in 1962 and we will not accept to go back to it.”

Although Saleh did not break communication with the movement’s leaders, he launched six wars against them. His speeches against them were famous for terms such as the supporters of the devil, the brutal group and vampires. The last statement against them dates back to 2012, i.e. one year after the revolution against him erupted. The revolution back then, particularly in Taiz and Sanaa, made Saleh withdraw his soldiers from governorates in the north. The Houthis thus expanded there and besieged the Salafist town of Dammaj and starved women and children after killing unarmed men. Back then (in 2012) Saleh had said: “These are inhuman monsters”.

Doctor Irayni, Yemen’s former prime minister, former foreign minister and Saleh’s former deputy at the General People’s Congress, who led the last negotiations with the Houthis before they occupied Imran and then Sanaa, told me in 2014 that Saleh was deeply affected by two things. The first thing was his firm belief that the “revolution” was entirely a conspiracy against him, schemed by Al-Islah Party or the Brotherhood and his belief that Al-Ahmar’s sons were involved in it. The second one was the assassination attempt against him at Al-Saleh Mosque during Friday’s prayers. The president believed that the children of late Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar had plotted the attack or were involved in it. Based on these two beliefs, he did not think that the Saudi kingdom and the Gulf will give up on him in favor of Al-Islah!

Why Saleh supported Houthis?

Does all this justify his overwhelming hatred to the extent of handing over Imran and Sanaa and other cities and governorates to the Houthis? The legitimate figures we spoke to after the Arab coalition intervened said the army, whose members are mainly from the North, the Republican Guards and special forces would only obey Saleh especially as all officers (even the Shafa'i ones) were loyal to him and were not used to obeying Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi. If his hatred was less, he could have prevented the Houthi expansion into Imran, Sanaa and other areas.

Why did Saleh suddenly rebel after two attempts from which he backed down, following mediations from Nasrallah and the Qataris? There is a theory that says the Houthis wanted to occupy the city the day after the Prophet’s Birthday, so he had to act. A retired Yemeni general said Saleh could no longer tolerate the situation and thought that since he had summoned gatherings from outside the city then he had the upper hand inside it.

There is clearly no prospect at present for a political solution. If a political solution is essential then it would have to force the Houthis to negotiate, and so Sanaa and Hodeidah must be restored.

President Saleh could not leave the presidency and although he did not opt for military confrontation against the revolutionary parties, he chose the worst possible option of aligning with brutal monsters, who finally devoured him. Since 2015, we’ve heard that the Houthis wanted to avenge the death of Hussein al-Houthi from Saleh. If Saleh was killed a week before he had rebelled, for any reason whatsoever, the mood would have been different. Arabs must prepare themselves for a long war in Yemen.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Radwan al Sayed is a Lebanese thinker and writer who attained a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Theology at al-Azhar University and a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Tübingen in Germany. He has been a scholar of Islamic studies for decades and is the former editor-in-chief of the quarterly al-Ijtihad magazine. Radwan is also the author of many books and has written for Arab dailies such as al-Ittihad, al-Hayat and ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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