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Commentary Crafting a Police State: Houthis Tighten Grip Amid Red Sea Attacks

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As the world’s attention is drawn to developments in the Red Sea, the impact of Houthi attacks on the global economy and the peace process in Yemen, and the risks of further escalation and wide repercussions for Yemen’s domestic landscape, should not be overlooked. The Houthis’ involvement in the Gaza war has fundamentally changed the course of events as the group tries to fully exploit this opportunity.

Yemenis of all factions have strong sympathy and unequivocal support for the Palestinian cause. This has facilitated the Houthis’ decision to involve themselves in the ongoing Gaza war. The group has used the war as an opportunity to consolidate its power domestically, especially since it broke out at a time when they were facing growing popular discontent due to economic deterioration and ongoing non-payment of public sector salaries. After the April 2022 truce halted major hostilities and lifted restrictions on Sana’a airport and the ports of Hudaydah, it was more difficult for the Houthis to justify the deteriorating living conditions and unfair tax collection, especially amid signs of increasing wealth among some of its leaders.

One of the tensest moments faced by the Houthis was the spontaneous and widespread popular celebration of the September 26 Revolution of 1962, which Yemenis see as the political antithesis of the Houthi coup of September 2014. Marking its anniversary became a form of defiance against the group. As a result, hundreds were arrested on the streets of Sana’a simply for celebrating. But in less than two weeks, the Palestinian cause returned to the headlines.

As the Gaza war and the brutality of Israeli aggression diverted attention, the Houthis’ involvement through missile attacks against Israel and targeting ships in the Red Sea quickly impressed some of their opponents and conferred new legitimacy on their rule. Renewed escalation of conflict, this time against Israel and the United States, curbed the possibility of a greater public outcry over the group’s policies.

Widespread popular sympathy for Palestinians and anger over sustained mass killing and destruction in Gaza, and over the US-UK air strikes in Yemen, have ramped up the recruitment of fighters and mass mobilization campaigns in Houthi-controlled areas. These activities include compulsory military drills and training courses, which last several days and target all ages and segments of society, including children and adolescents, academics, and judges.

The group’s leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, now appears regularly on television, delivering speeches every Thursday night. He also gives other speeches on the many occasions the Houthis commemorate, such as the Martyr Days for figures such as Hussein al-Houthi, Saleh al-Samad, and others.

In these public addresses, starting from his first speech on October 10 after the launch of the Hamas-led Al-Aqsa Flood Operation against Israel, Abdelmalek al-Houthi has consistently asserted that the group is coordinating with the Axis of Resistance to respond proportionately to the Israeli aggression against the people of Gaza. It has also become clear that he is personally and attentively following mobilization efforts, as he regularly accuses critics of the group of hypocrisy and loyalty to the “infidels” and Israel. Notably, Abdelmalek’s speeches have progressively become more religious, compared to the more nationalist speeches he gave earlier in the war against the Saudi-led coalition, where he was careful to avoid inflaming sectarian sensitivities.

Generally, the Gaza war has worked in the Houthis’ favor for three main reasons. First, it helped the group achieve its long-standing ambition to gain prominence regionally. The Houthis have gained extraordinary popularity outside Yemen amid popular anger in the region and the world over the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Their actions in the Red Sea have presented the Houthis as a regional and international actor to be reckoned with and one that will not back down.

Secondly, the Houthis are invested in the war to legitimize their rule and consolidate their political vision of governance, centered on the leadership of Abdelmalek al-Houthi as an absolute political and religious authority. The Houthis first came to power by force of arms, but their legitimacy remained fragile. They have tried to bolster it by engaging in conversations around power-sharing, even if they have no intention of following through. Then came the war with the Saudi-led coalition, which provided them with the cover to consolidate power and roll back their alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, eventually leading to his killing in December 2017. In the absence of rivals or competitors, over time the group’s confidence was bolstered, and they began to implement their political vision through the enactment of new laws and the changing of educational curricula.

Houthi leaders continued to play the power-sharing card in international media to counter accusations that the group is authoritarian and unwilling to cede power. The Saudi roadmap – announced just weeks before the outbreak of the Gaza war – included a pledge to take part in Yemeni-Yemeni talks on the future of governance in the country. But the ongoing Gaza war has bolstered the Houthis’ confidence and audacity to the point that they have publicly declared that Abdelmalek al-Houthi must be the head of state, with absolute authority, in any future political system. While this notion has long been ingrained in the group’s ideology and widely applied in practice, they never disclosed it publicly to a Western audience until senior Houthi official Abdelmalek al-Ejri’s recent comments to The Atlantic.

Finally, the Houthis are using the war as a pretext to crack down on all forms of dissent, silencing those who do not demonstrate absolute loyalty to the group. It started with the arrest and enforced disappearance of Judge Abdelwahhab Qatran on January 2, who criticized the Red Sea operations and said it would have been better to pay attention to the internal affairs of a country suffering from famine. He is the first public figure to be imprisoned and punished under a recently enacted law prohibiting and criminalizing recognition of Israel or normalizing relations with it. This law – promulgated on December 5, 2023 – is strong evidence of how the Houthis are exploiting the Gaza war to tighten their grip.

Throughout the nearly decade-long Yemen war, Houthi authorities have tried hundreds of their opponents through the Office of Public Prosecution and the Specialized Criminal Court of First Instance on state security charges such as undermining the independence and unity of the state, or espionage and communication with a foreign state. Most of these charges are based on provisions of the penal code, which imposes the death penalty if a defendant is found guilty. Additional penalties may be imposed such as the confiscation of the defendant’s assets. But the Houthis have gone too far in applying these laws – especially the asset confiscation clause – which is supposed to apply only in exceptional circumstances. In 2017, a Specialized Penal Prosecution issued a decision to confiscate the assets of 3,700 individuals labeled as ‘traitors’ and ‘mercenaries,’ most of whom reside outside Yemen.

Despite misusing the law and appointing crooked judges to corrupt the judicial system, some provisions of the penal code remained an obstacle for the Houthis, until the Gaza war provided them with an opportunity to pass the new legislation regarding Israel. The law’s provisions exclude no one and can be applied randomly. It criminalizes any direct or indirect relations with Israel, with countries that have overt or covert relations with it, and statements declaring or implying support for Israel. Other provisions of the law forbid communication – by any means – with Israel through any affiliated official body or establishing a trade relationship with such bodies. The law also criminalizes “the use of the internet and social media to engage with websites or electronic services established by or affiliated with the Zionist enemy, or with companies that are complicit and support the occupation [Israeli] forces.”

The scope of application of this law is clearly stipulated: it applies to Yemenis at home and abroad as well as foreigners residing in Yemen; there are no exceptions. Indeed, the law does not even specify evidence needed to convict a person, only a presumption of their guilt.

The monstrosity of this law lies not only in the fact that it can be used to unequivocally indict anyone, but also in the severity of the associated penalties. It includes provisions stipulating that penalties can be toughened under conditions of war. Even more concerning, it lacks provisions for granting pardons or commutating sentences. Penalties range from imprisonment to fines and confiscation of assets. It also threatens to suspend the activities of any company, institution, organization, or other legal entity found guilty.

In tandem with the new law, the Houthis have become more openly repressive. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the recent bombing of the house of an opposition figure in the town of Rada’a in Al-Bayda governorate, which destroyed several neighboring buildings and claimed the lives of at least 13 people.

The group is relying heavily on its involvement in the Gaza war to consolidate power far more efficiently than it did during the war with the Saudi-led coalition. But even the political cover provided by the Gaza crisis will not be enough to hide the deepening economic crisis in Houthi-run territories and the group’s increasing repression to maintain control.