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Commentary The Zaidi Taliban State: Only a Matter of Time

Since their takeover, the Houthi group (Ansar Allah) has been cautiously but consistently recasting Yemeni society and its political system in their own image. This has involved a crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly, a massive campaign of youth radicalization under the slogan of defending the homeland against “Saudi-Zionist-American aggression,” and restrictions on women’s right to work and travel.

The tempo of that campaign accelerated as direct Saudi-Houthi talks began nearly two years ago. We probably will never know whether it was Saudi genius or mere coincidence, but the unconditional concessions Riyadh gave the Houthis created a false sense of victory within the group, strengthening the hand of its most radical members. This appears to have set the Houthis off on a race against the clock to forge the final form of state they desire before the eventual start of negotiations with other Yemeni parties on that state’s structure.

In doing so, the Houthis have dropped their long-standing principle of taqiyya, or dissimulation of true belief, to reveal a design for the future that their coalition partners, the vast majority of Yemenis, and even the pragmatic faction of the Houthi group itself, do not accept. But in revealing their true intentions, the Houthis have perhaps defeated themselves and made it less likely for them to be part of a future Yemeni state.

On September 21, the Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi promised that he would announce sweeping and deep reforms in the structure of the state during an upcoming September 27 address commemorating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. Many speculated that he would announce a return to the Zaidi Imamate system, whose reputation Houthi media has been trying to rehabilitate over the past few years. Others predicted the reforms would aim to create a state structure similar to Iran’s, with Abdelmalek as the official religious leader sitting at the top.

However, sensing the impending effort to undermine the republican system, the masses in Sana’a and all over Houthi-controlled territory took the opportunity of the 61st anniversary of the revolution against the Imamate on September 26 to hoist the Republic of Yemen flag and sing the national anthem. Squads of special Houthi security service forces set up checkpoints to confiscate the flags and occasionally beat those carrying them. Mass arrests were reported in Sana’a. The public gave the Houthis a clear message: that the attempt to replace the republic with a religious system will be met with massive resistance.

The tone of Abdelmalek’s eventual speech was subdued. Instead of the teased governance overhaul, he announced he was firing his powerless cabinet and promised a new government of technocrats. Modest as it was, he called this step “the first phase of the promised deep structural reforms.” But clearly, that was not what the Houthis had originally planned for the speech. It was the massive protest of September 26 that made them change their mind.

Nevertheless, it has become clear that the Houthis still plan to put an end to the republican system as we know it. Ever since they seized power in Sana’a in 2014, the Houthis have agitated against the main tenets of the republican system. Equality is no longer an acceptable principle, as the Houthi commitment to the concept of wilaya (guardianship) means that only the descendants of Hasan and Hussein, the sons of the Prophet’s cousin Ali, have the right to rule. Deference to political or sectarian, let alone religious diversity, is rarely shown these days. In recent weeks, the Houthi movement’s online army of supporters has been attacking parliamentarians too such as judge Ahmed Saif Hashed and members of the Houthis’ nominal partner in government, the General People’s Congress (GPC), for speaking out about unpaid civil servants and other victims of the lawless Houthi police state.

On June 1 this year, a senior Houthi leader, Yousuf al-Feeshi, announced that “there will be no partisanship nor regional divisions – there is only one people and their leader. We can have elections but no competition for power as the leader is holy.” With political power ordained solely in the supreme leader, mere mortals have no claim to it. There is also no need for a constitution. On September 29, Dhaifallah al-Shami, the Houthi Minister of Information, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that the constitution is divisive and the only real constitution is the Quran. In fact, this argument, often made by Abdelmalek himself, is identical to that of another champion of the theocratic state, Islah’s Abdelmajid al-Zindani. He too is infamous for his objection to the constitution and insistence on reserving the right to rule to religious scholars.

However, despite that, thinking that the Houthis are planning either to restore the Imamate or fashion their new state in the image of Iran’s Islamic Republic is in my view too optimistic. Their model is not the primitive authoritarianism of the Imamate, nor the hybrid theocratic-institutional system of Iran. Rather, they are looking to create a totalitarian religious system that combines the Taliban theocracy with the North Korean police state. If you are not convinced, a trip to their traditional stronghold of Sa’ada will enlighten you on what a future “Zaidi Taliban” state in Yemen could look like.