Last year Yemen celebrated 50 years since the republic was established via military coup. Political systems and the distribution of power they involve do not just disappear, they tend to replicate themselves in disguised forms and it would hardly be a surprise to find that this has been the case in Yemen since then. The republic replaced a Zaidi Imamate – a Sharia state system in which the legitimate rulers came from an elite class of descendants of the Prophet, referred to as al-hashimiyyeen, or the Hashemis. However, the republic only really found its feet, after a decade of instability, with the ascendance of Ali Abdullah Saleh to the presidency in 1978.
What makes an examination of the fate of the Zaidi state – its political, religious and social institutions – so intriguing at this point is not only that Saleh was forced out of office after a year of street upheaval, but the rise of a new player in Yemen’s fractious politics: the Houthi movement. The Houthis emerged in the late 1990s – ironically, through some encouragement by Saleh himself in an effort to corner other enemies – as, it became clear in time, a Zaidi revival movement and response to the manipulations of the Zaidi socio-political system effected by Saleh’s republic.
The republic presents itself as the enabler of modernity and progress which cast aside the tyranny, corruption and backwardness of the Imamate. The state never ceased in its heavy depictions of excess and injustice around the person of the Imam and his court – as a trip to the military museum in Sanaa amply demonstrates. However, this representation of the Imamate ignored the role of Sharia courts and Sharia judges in limiting the absolutism of the Imam. In the traditional Sharia state – which in most places was swept aside through colonialism – the courts were a moderating force against the absolute powers of the ruler, a protection for society (which I look at in more detail in my book The Islamic Utopia). In the Imamate, the courts were an arena where even the Imam could be challenged in certain areas of law, and there are examples of this regarding the last Imams such as Ahmad bin Yahya.
Saleh himself was a product of the highly stratified Zaidi society, but whose origins in the Sanhan branch of the Ahmar clan fitted into its lower echelons. The highest caste in Zaidi society was the Saada, Hashemis who through Shi’ite theology had a more elevated status than their Sunni counterparts, a class seen as closer to God through their bloodline to the Prophet, if not partaking just a bit in divinity itself. They were followed by Musa’ideen (‘assistants’, including tribal sheikhs), the ‘Amma (ordinary people), and lastly the Mazayna (street cleaners, barbers, etc).
Saleh tried to see to it that the Saada lost much of their status under his rule, cutting their financial subsidies and distancing them from politics. He also tried to coopt and control the Zaidi Sharia courts – which had survived longer than in most other post-colonial states of the Arab world – by making himself the chief justice – a position he only gave up in 2008. A theme running through the criticisms of Saleh across the spectrum of his political opponents is that he behaved in a despotic manner, in other words in the manner of an absolute ruler. Indeed, it is said that Saleh’s courtiers would in time come to treat the republican president like something of a Zaidi Imam himself – telling him ‘inta rabbi/you are my lord’ and hoping for baraka through touching him. Which begs the question, did Saleh try to bury the Imamate – or recreate it in his image? Was he the last Imam?
What is fascinating about this is that now fundamental shifts are taking place in Yemeni Zaidism through the rise of the Houthi movement, such as its gradual alignment with Iran and Twelver Shi’ite political movements elsewhere. I was in Yemen for four weeks in September and October last year, during which time I had the chance to speak to many political players among the Houthis, the Islah party, southern secessionists, political observers, and human rights activists. At that time, the Houthis’ spread into Sanaa had become a fait accompli and officials, both foreign and Yemeni, were struggling to come to terms with it (I wrote about it within the news agency framework in this piece).
Indeed, Houthi discourse is not only aligning itself – to a degree that needs research to determine with accuracy – with the wider current of Shi’ite regional politics. There is evidence of the Houthis expanding their support base further south, appealing to Sunni Hashemis in Taiz and forming alliances with some southern leaders in the secessionist Hirak movement.