Whirlwind Ascent of Houthi Rebels in Yemen Brings Relief and Trepidation

Whirlwind Ascent of Houthi Rebels in Yemen Brings Relief and Trepidation

A band of rebels took control of this capital city last month, seizing control of ministries and forcing the resignation of Yemen’s government so suddenly that Izzedine al-Kuhlani, a 23-year-old rebel supporter, went from studying pharmacology one day to securing the Central Bank the next.

He sat outside the building recently with an AK-47 on his lap, saying he was protecting it against “corrupt people.” As a public face of the rebel movement, the Houthis, his task was to help convince Yemenis that the group’s incursion into Sana was aimed at creating pressure for a more responsive government, not just a power grab.

“Yemen will change,” Mr. Kuhlani said confidently, as he commiserated with motorists stuck in traffic at the start of a holiday weekend. “You will see.”

Overshadowed by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the Houthis’ lightning advance on the capital on Sept. 21 drew little notice even as it seemed to fundamentally reshape Yemen’s politics. Facing little resistance, the rebels routed powerful political figures and the country’s most established Islamist movement, while signing a power-sharing agreement with the government that seemed to cement their status as Yemen’s most prominent opposition force.

At home, the Houthis ascendance has brought trepidation, but also relief among those who have welcomed the rebels’ populist promises or have simply tired of the government’s failures.

It has also given rise to dire predictions of sectarian conflict, in a state that has struggled with the threat of Sunni extremist militancy. The Houthis’ leadership and many in the ranks come from the minority Zaydi sect, an offshoot of Shiism whose people make up a quarter to a third of the Yemen’s population, but have complained for decades of being marginalized by the government.

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