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Yemen and the manufacture of sectarianism

Jan 26, 2015

Dr. Azmi Bishara

Yemen and the manufacture of sectarianismYemen has in recent years provided a live practical demonstration of the maxim that political sectarianism is manufactured, rather than inherent. It is acquired rather than natural.
Historically, Yemen was never party to the confessional conflicts between Sunni and Shia, to the extent that some considered the Zaidi tradition, which was indigenous to Yemen, shortly after it sprang up, as the Shia of the Sunni, or as the Sunni of the Shia.
According to tradition, the name al-Rafida ["the Rejectionists"] to describe those who disavow any connection with Sahaba [the Companions of the Prophet] is attributable to Imam Zaid bin Ali himself. Moreover, Yemen's system of government-by-Imam was based on tribal alliances that bolstered it, on a complex tribal structure that entailed the inclusion of both different Zaidi sects in the northern parts of Yemen and some of its central regions, and also on tribes that belonged to the Shafii school of thought.
When Abdullah al-Sallal's republican coup, backed by Nasser's Egypt, occurred against the system of government-by-Imam, the Ahmar clan led the alliance of the Zaidi Hashed tribes against the rule of the Zaidi imams. As for Saudi Arabia, it supported the rebellion by the pro-Imam tribes.
That entire situation was a struggle over interests, influence and power. There is nothing strange about that. The struggle to gain power and the position of imam is at the root of the old Sunni-Shia sectarian schism. Those disputes were not over the best ways of drawing closer to God, rather they were concerned with retroactive religious interpretations that were used in the service of power conflicts.
Zaidi flexibility
At the time, the Zaidi community embraced the position of those who turned against the Imam. The sect accepts the concept of disavowing an unjust ruler; there is no question of the Imam having a priori infallibility. Nor does it state that the position of the Imam must be inherited. Moreover, it does not sever the relationship with the Sahaba as a reference, but recognises them as such.
In the midst of the conflict that raged in Yemen in the 1960s, a great deal was said about the way in which tribal alliances switched sides between the Saudis and Nasserism. It was said that the tribes were republican during the day and royalist at night, or the other way round.
Social hegemony belonged to the tribe, rather than to the sect. In the case of large, geographically dispersed tribes, different sects prevailed.
The interpretation of the Zaidi sect in a manner that emphasises the rule of the Imam and his infallibility and the status of the Mahdi as a supra-human condition required the introduction of a basic change in the sect's conceptualisation.
That change was influenced by regional political alliances with Iran on the one hand, and by reactions to an expansion of Sunni influence as a result of the alliance with Saudi Arabia on the other, and even by the establishment of Salafism within some Zaidi tribal circles after the Ahmar clan took over leadership and became partisan.
The state in Yemen has to build a polity based on citizenship which enjoys a cohesiveness deriving from cultural, national and other common denominators.
The army - which is supposed to contribute to forging a modern national identity by merging tribal and regional identities through a single military uniform and through a unified sense of allegiance to the nation - has been infiltrated by several links of allegiance.
Those who enjoy allegiance and trust in traditional society are relatives from the same tribe, region and neighbourhood. In the Arab Mashreq, those allegiances intersect with sectarian identity, although they are distinct from it. The majority that is disadvantaged by the ruling regimes tends to deal with it as a minority sect that is in control, as has occurred in both Syria and Iraq.
The shortcomings of the state
In Yemen, however, the sense of tribal belonging continued to prevail until conflict began within the tribes themselves. Which means that parties and their conflicts - for example the conflict between Ali Saleh and the Ahmar clan - have been able to split the large tribes.
The Houthis were transformed from a movement within one of the Zaidi sects in a marginal geographically limited region into a militia attempting to represent the Zaidis in general, after it had reinterpreted the community's identity in line with regional alliances opposed to other regional alliances.
When sectarianism spreads beyond the town and the district to the wider region, and develops into state aspirations, it develops from an authentic social communitarian sectarianism into political sectarianism that affects the unity of a people as a people, and competes with the state for political allegiance.
Yemen could have been saved by the revolution of young Yemenis, who overturned all preconceived ideas about Yemen in the squares of Taiz and Sanaa, and subsequently in all parts of Yemen during 2011.
However, the young people did not have a democratic political party. The majority of them were young democrats from the Islah (Reform) Party and the Joint Meeting Parties, while some of them did not belong to any formal group.
Not only did they call for the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh, they also put forward advanced democratic demands. The divisions between them and the Houthis were obvious in the public squares where protesters congregated.
The defeat of the revolutionaries
The revolution failed for a number of reasons. It was thwarted by Saleh's continued ability to elicit tribal loyalties within the army; because of intervention by the Gulf states to protect Saleh when the political settlement was reached; because of the abandonment of support for the government and for attempts to rebuild the army so that its loyalty would be limited to the state; and because of the marginalisation of the young people who had waged the revolution. 
Those factors resulted in an expansion of the influence of the Houthis, in collusion with elements loyal to Saleh within the army, right from the start.
Transitional rule weakened the military forces supportive of the revolution and the young revolutionaries themselves, because the new central regime was able to impose its will on them since they themselves wanted it to succeed. At the same time, the Houthis colluded with Saleh - who enjoys immunity and renewed relations with some Gulf countries - to foil the experiment.
Regionally, the fact that most Gulf states - except Qatar - are at odds in their relations with the Arab revolutions and have contradictory approaches to coexisting with a pluralistic system of government in Yemen, was exploited.
In addition, Iran has opened several fronts in the region since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, while Russia ensures that the UN Security Council does not adopt basic positions with regard to Iran's allies in the region, and only adopts those resolutions that do not name the Houthis and omit any meaningful, tangible measures.
Sectarian political parties and movements spring up in countries that had previously been free of them, fostered by regional support. Not only do they spread, but the reactions to them also spread, thereby colouring everything after their own fashion.
The Houthis will not rule the whole of Yemen, because there are several social and political forces that will prevent them from doing so. If those forces commit to a political vision that incorporates nationalism with equal citizenry they will prevail.

al-Araby al-Jadeed

Azmi Bishara on Twitter


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