In a panel organised by the Project on Middle East Political Science entitled ‘Yemen’s Stalemate’, three panellists came together to discuss the impasse in elite-level politics in Yemen. In what was overall a fascinating discussion, Laurent Bonnefoy, an expert on Salafist movements in Yemen, highlighted the diverse array of Islamist groups in the country.
Whatever comes next in country’s political trajectory, there is little doubt Yemen will be heavily influenced by Islamist politics. However, as Bonnefoy points out, Islamist ideologies in the country are incredibly diverse and complex. To simplify, Bonnefoy identifies five main kinds of Islamist movements in the country:
- Islah Party: Islah encompasses a broad range of Islamists, from moderates, such as Tawakul Karman, to more conservative voices, such as Sheikh Zindani, who have strong connections to tribal elites. The party, which has styled itself as a pseudo-Muslim Brotherhood, remains an ambiguous yet pertinent force in Yemeni politics. The movement has, however, lost some support and legitimacy because of its controversial role in the protests, including its attempts to hijack the protest movement and allegations that Islah members have been manning detention centres to stop people from protesting the GCC initiative.
- Quietist Salafist Movement: The quietest Salafist movement has shied away from politics, believing that the only legitimate form of government is rule by God. In the face of the Arab Spring, the movement has re-asserted its apolitical approach, which has often meant maintaining loyalty to the ruling regime. A prominent spokesperson for the movement has called the Arab Spring protests an ‘alien force’ that should not be trusted.
- Activist Salafists: The Arab Spring has seemed to inspire a growing movement of ‘Activist Salafists’ who have broken from Salafisms’ traditional apolitical stance to embrace party politics, albeit tentatively. Similar to the Al-Nour party in Egypt, some of these Yemeni Salafists have warmed to the idea of participating in elections.
- Zaydi Revivalist: Commonly associated with the Al-Houthi rebellion in the northern governorate of Sa’ada, the Shi’a Zaydi revivalists gained control of the region following the government’s collapse last year. Since their decision to form a political party, known as the Al-Umma party, the movement has undergone tremendous changes, signalling its desire to move beyond the single-issue politics of Sa’ada and gain ground in other parts of the country.
- Jihadis: Yemen’s jihadists are incredibly diverse. The pro-democracy protests in Yemen have created a severe legitimacy crisis for old school jihadists. While the army’s fragmentation has allowed jihadists, some of whom align with Al-Qaeda, to seize control of villages, this has forced the jihadists to move beyond the rhetoric of jihad and focus on local and practical problems. Like the Zaydi revivalists, the Sunni jihadists will have to undergo a significant transformation, the success of which will largely depend on their ability to cater to local demands and address popular grievances on issues such as infrastructure, security and justice.