Imagine this chaotic courthouse scene: jailed Yemeni suspects in Sanaa disrupt the start of their trial by screaming “Death to American! Death to Israel!” and chanting Islamic slogans predicting a Muslim victory and threatening the government. As the men loudly recite Quranic verses, the judge adjourns the hearing until the following week.
This is a summary of events in a Yemeni court earlier this week as 36 rebels, lead by former member of parliament Hussein Badreddine al Houthy before he was killed last September, were being tried. Al Houthy has a long history of political activity; he had escaped to Iran and Syria and only returned to Yemen after a general amnesty. He established cells, which denounced the West and repeated slogans of extremist Iranian politicians. In his fight against the Yemeni authorities, he used the same propaganda they had previously employed to suit their own motives.
Ironically, the rebels who caused much commotion and threatened the West and Israel have only ever fought their own people. All their battles have centered around the northern province of Saada by the border with Saudi Arabia. How were they engaged in battles against Israel when all those they killed were Yemeni? Al Houthy had successfully convinced his followers, like other Arab rebel leaders before him, that fighting government forces was, in fact, opposing the enemy; his supporters repeatedly announced theirs was a battle against the Jewish state, perhaps forgetting the 3000km that separate Tel Aviv and Saada.
I do not doubt that the rebel leader knew the distance between Yemen and Israel and was aware no fighting between the two would ever take place; his goal was Sanaa and not Jerusalem. He realized the men of Saada would not rise against the Yemeni government unless they became convinced their rebellion had grander aims such as the elimination of Israel and victory over the U.S. In his quest, al Houthy was helped, in no small part, by government institutions, which had created and exploited empty slogans to increase its popularity. The rebel was merely following in the footsteps of countless government who had successfully manipulated public opinion. His followers denounced the government’s volte-face as it did not abide by its own decisions and slogans and declared their readiness to act on these promises. Al Houthy was merely a student in the Arab school of rhetoric.
The movement attracted young men through lessons, seminars, meetings, summer camps and made use of the dominant discourse the government fed its citizens and is now dearly paying the price for. It is no coincidence that clashes erupted in Yemen. Other opposition movements in the Arab world had adopted opportunists populist policies before. As the competition between government and opposition increased, each party espoused more extremist views to the detriment of their citizens. Since this extremism is devoid of real causes, it is always open for criticism and exploitation. The case of al Houthy illustrates how opposition movements can hijack government propaganda and attack the regime using its own words and deeds.