Fighting in Northern Yemen

National Versus Tribal Law

For the last three years, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, there has been an armed conflict under way in Northern Yemen. The government hopes finally to crush the Shiite rebels with its latest offensive. Susanne Sporrer reports

Mountains in Yemen (photo:
It is estimated that thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in the tribal areas so far

​​The streets are blockaded in the embattled mountainous region of Saada, which lies close to the border with Saudi Arabia and rises to 3,000 metres above sea level. The telephone connections are cut, supplies of food have collapsed—even aid organisations have no access. There is no reliable source of information as to what is happening there.

Several journalists who have been reporting on the conflict have already been sentenced to terms of imprisonment. Now the government paper, Al Thaura, has threatened the media that the publication of rebel statements will be seen as tantamount to supporting terrorists.

A religious conflict?

The fighting began in summer 2004 after supporters of the Shiite cleric Hussain al-Huthi used anti-American slogans to protest against the pro-Western line of the central government.

Three months later, al-Huthi was dead, but the revolt continued under the leadership of members of his family. Negotiations took place several times--in 2006 there was even an amnesty for imprisoned rebels--but the region never really came to rest.

The background to this conflict and its motives are diffuse. At first sight it seems like a religious conflict: government troops from a mainly Sunni country are fighting a Shiite group.

Protests at the country's foreign policy

Saada is the stronghold of the Zaidists, a branch of Shiism which is almost only to be found in Yemen. The Zaidists had a religious state in Northern Yemen for a thousand years until the revolution in 1962, and during that time they provided the main Imam in Sana'a.

The government accuses the Zaidist fighters of trying to overthrow the president of the republic and impose a new Imam-base regime.

The political scientist Iris Glosemeyer thinks this is unlikely: "I don't believe that anyone in Saada is seriously engaged in trying to overthrow the president," she says. "If they were, they wouldn't be fighting in Saada but in the capital Sana'a."

Glosemeyer says that, when the conflict started three years ago, it was a protest against the president's foreign policy, which was to support the US. The Zaidists wanted to show themselves as "even more anti-American" than the fundamentalist Sunnis, "And the government wanted to show that even Saada was under its central control."

Tribal loyalty

In many parts of Yemen tribal law and the rule of the Sheikh are far more important than what the government wants in distant Sana'a Saada is such a region. And the tribal structure ensures that conflicts quickly escalate.

For example, when the al-Huthis and their supporters were attacked, the surrounding tribes, according to their tradition, felt obliged to come to their defence. The al-Huthis are a Sayyid family, regarded as the descendants of Mohammed and thus entitled to special protection.

The government too won over tribes to fight with them against the Zaidists. That way, many initially uninvolved parties were drawn into the conflict. "You can't draw a clear distinction between the rebels and the civilian population," says Glosemeyer.

The conflict spreads

The government is now bringing in other actors: it's accusing Iran and Libya of supporting the rebels.

Glosemeyer thinks that some sort of relationship between the rebels and the two states is quite possible: "Since Yemen is so hard for a central government to bring under control," she says, "it's always been a favourite playground for all kinds of other elements."

But the US political scientist Gregory D. Johnson doesn't agree. He sees these accusations as part of an attempt by the government to link internal problems with regional issues, and thereby to win financial support from abroad.

Negotiations the only solution

That would be consistent with the description of the al-Huthi supporters as terrorists. "If the government can sell its fight as part of the war against terrorism," says Glosemeyer, "it has a freer hand in its choice of weapons and can win foreign support more easily."

But even with more effective weaponry, it seems as if the government cannot win the battle in this difficult terrain. Glosemeyer believes that negotiations are the only solution, although it does not look as if negotiations are likely right now.

The rebels threaten to take the fight to other parts of the country. And the official media is currently putting out an Islamic legal decision which calls on the faithful to join the fight against the supporters of the al-Huthi camp.

Susanne Sporrer

© 2007

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

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