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Commentary The Mandatory Celebration of Hardship

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In the past, the Yemeni state celebrated only holidays that held national significance. These included the anniversaries of several major political moments in Yemen’s history: September 26, marking the ousting of the Imamate and the establishment of a republican regime in the north; October 14, commemorating the start of the uprising against British colonial rule in the south; November 30, marking the south’s declaration of independence from the United Kingdom; and May 22, commemorating the unification of north and south and the birth of the Republic of Yemen. Other public holidays included religious occasions such as Mawlid al-Nabi (the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday), the beginning of the Islamic new year, and the two Eid festivals, Eid al-Adha during Hajj and Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. Celebrations of these holidays typically involved simple official ceremonies. Wider celebrations were held only to mark a notable milestone, such as a 10th, 25th, or 50th anniversary. Otherwise, such days usually passed quietly. On other religious and social occasions, the state generally did not participate.

However, under Houthi rule, celebrations of national events have been minimized in favor of marking important events in the history of the group. Special Houthi commemorations now include the anniversary of the takeover of Sana’a (September 21), and the anniversaries of the deaths of Houthi founder Hussein al-Houthi and his father, Badreddine al-Houthi. Religious occasions have taken on new importance, including sect-specific commemorations such as Ashoura, marking the killing of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet, and Eid al-Ghadir (Wilaya Day), when Shias mark the Prophet naming his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his successors. The number of annual Houthi-mandated commemorations in Yemen now exceeds 20, and the group spends lavishly on these new occasions.

Like any totalitarian regime seeking to reshape society, the Houthis use these celebrations to perpetuate their ideological message and demonstrate their authoritarian power. The end goal is an attempt to impose their religious and political ideology on the whole country. In their efforts, the Houthis martial every instrument of their power, including control over media, education, and state finances.

The lavish spending at these events flies in the face of the economic situation facing many Yemenis and the country at large. Extravagant decorations were on display during the recent celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, including a fireworks show in Sana’a that lasted almost 45 minutes, at a time when the group claims it is unable to pay the salaries of state employees or provide basic services to citizens. According to a Sana’a- based economist, the cost is borne not only by the state budget (generated from zakat and tax revenues) but through compulsory levies collected from ordinary citizens as “contributions” to the celebration. People are even forced to provide in-kind gifts such as honey. For the Prophet’s birthday, additional expenses are incurred as the group forces residents and business owners to light and decorate their shops and homes in green. While the Houthis claim such contributions are voluntary, one bank was reportedly forced to pay 5 million rials directly from its budget, according to the Sana’a-based economist.

Levies collected by Houthi officials have become one of the most prominent features of the group’s rule, with different justifications given throughout the year, including frequent celebrations. However, some of these funds go directly into the pockets of the officials themselves, who enjoy legal immunity, further impoverishing the population while Houthi loyalists amass more wealth.

The Houthis not only exacerbate and insult people’s poverty by spending lavishly on these celebrations; many are forced to attend and participate in such events. Authorities claim that participation is voluntary and that attendance reflects the magnitude of their popularity, but use various means to compel residents to turn up.

Based on accounts from residents of Sana’a, public events under the Houthis have taken a drastically different form than those during the tenure of longtime former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – under Saleh, large-scale commemorations were held irregularly, often carried out by officials or social figures trying to curry favor with the president. Ahead of the Prophet’s birthday, the Houthis distributed envelopes to a neighborhood chief (aqil), who was responsible for distributing them to the houses in their neighborhood and collecting financial contributions. Aqils are also responsible for distributing aid and cooking gas cylinders, creating an additional inducement to comply. Tribal sheikhs are also forced to engage in mobilization for the events, just as they are compelled to recruit fighters to send to frontlines. Consequences for non-compliance have included harassment and imprisonment. Employees of an organization for people with disabilities complained that the Houthis had forced members to participate, despite warnings that their disabilities made it difficult and dangerous to do so.

The issue is not just the lavish spending or the imbalance of priorities in a country experiencing economic collapse – the political messages accompanying these celebrations are politically divisive. The Prophet’s birthday is no longer cast as a religious event but rather a political occasion to underscore the legitimacy of Houthi rule. According to the Houthis’ theocratic theories of governance, those who claim their descent from the Prophet, so-called Hashemites, have been chosen by God to lead the nation under their “divine rule.” The occasion is now less a celebration of the Prophet than it is a celebration of Abdelmalek al-Houthi. On social media, some commentators have even accused the Houthis of demoting the Prophet from a messenger of God to an ancestor of Abdelmalek.

Despite Houthi attempts to dominate the public sphere and repress dissent, Yemenis resist in low-cost and non-confrontational ways, the most prominent example being recent commemorations of Revolution Day on September 26. These involved individual and group celebrations, including gatherings in squares, the lighting of homes, the playing of revolutionary songs, and setting off fireworks. Such acts have taken on additional political significance, as many Yemenis believe that the Houthis’ choice to enter Sana’a on September 21, 2014, was a deliberate attempt to overshadow the anniversary of the fall of the Imamate. The marking of the anniversary of the founding of the republic reflects a widening gap between people’s convictions and the Houthi authorities and their imposed ideology.

The problem of replacing national events with religious celebrations lies not just in their representation of religion as the only basis of legitimate governance. They undermine adherence to the concept of an inclusive national state. The Houthis’ attempt to transform Yemen into a homogenous society has alienated the overwhelming majority of Yemenis who remember the pre-Houthi era. They fear the impact on their children and future generations, and the transformation of the country into a place they do not recognize and where they can see no future.