Loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks regularly blare a message of defiance above the steady din of honking horns and grinding motors.
“Beware of the West!” warns the amplified voice, echoing amid traffic-clogged streets and bustling shops. “The West doesn’t have Yemen’s interests at heart.”
The Yemeni capital, roiled in recent years by mass protests, car bombings and gun battles, is at the center of profound disquiet about what the future holds for this strategically situated nation of 24 million, long a key partner in U.S. counter-terrorism efforts against Al Qaeda.
An uneasy and tenuous calm hangs over this ancient town nestled amid scorched desert peaks. The loudspeakers, like the ubiquitous anti-U.S. slogans stenciled on walls and the teenage gunmen running checkpoints, are manifestations of Sana’s newest rulers: the Houthis, a provincial faction turned national kingmakers in a dramatic turn of events that has alarmed Washington and its Persian Gulf allies.
Although many at home and abroad have denounced the Houthis, who dissolved Yemen’s parliament this month, the group has won considerable popular support through pledges to destroy archenemy Al Qaeda and curb rampant corruption.
The Houthis’ ascendance has also signaled the abrupt breakdown of years of U.S.-backed efforts to craft a transition to a democratic, pro-Western government after decades of autocratic rule that crumbled amid “Arab Spring” protests. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared ominously last week that Yemen is “collapsing before our eyes.”
Improbably calling the shots in Sana these days is a Shiite Muslim-led minority movement aligned with Shiite Iran, where the media gloat about Tehran’s expanding influence in Arab capitals, from Sana to Beirut, Damascus to Baghdad. While emphasizing that they are not pawns of Tehran, the Houthis do not conceal their esteem for Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement that is a dominant military and political force in Lebanon.