by Samaa Al Hamdani, Fikra Forum, February 20

[For this article in Arabic, click here.)

Last September, a rebel militia known as the Houthis successfully captured large portions of Yemen’s north and its capital, Sana. A few months later, in January 2015, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government resigned following clashes with the Houthis. By February 10, diplomatic missions in Sana’a had evacuated the country to protest the “illegitimate Houthi takeover.” Overnight, the Houthis became Yemen’s new rulers, but very little was known about them.

The enigmatic Houthi movement transformed from a Zaydi revivalist group in the early 1990s, to a rebel movement in the mid-1990s, to an enemy warring against the Yemeni state in the early 2000s. Following the revolution in 2011, the Houthis secured 33 seats in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), because they had significant local influence and were considered victims of the former regime. The Houthis were granted a specialized committee in the NDC solidifying them as an influential political player. However, as soon as the dialogue concluded, the Houthis lost faith in the internationally backed political transition. Since then, the Houthis – led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi – have employed Machiavellian tactics to gain influence in Yemen, taking advantage of the dismal performance of Hadi’s National Unity Government to seize territory and power.

In September 2014 Hadi lifted fuel subsidies, which angered much of the Yemeni population and provided an opening for the Houthis. Cleverly, the Houthis sided with the people against the government; thereafter, within six days, they seized the capital. Months later, on February 11, they mobilized mass protests to overshadow any activities by the opposition. It is likely that a Houthi-led protest will take place on March 18, the anniversary of the “Friday of Dignity,” during which 56 protestors were killed in 2011. By hijacking public rallies, the Houthis aim to silence the opposition and, in this specific case, avoid criticism by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations Security Council.

At a juice bar in Cairo, two men posed by a photograph of Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. The general has become a popular figure among many Egyptians; Narciso Contreras for The New York Times

The future of Egyptian democracy: Islamism beyond the Muslim Brotherhood

by Yasmin Moll, The Immanent Flame, August 29

A few weeks after the ouster of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the New York Times ran this headline: “Egyptian Liberals Embrace the Military, Brooking No Dissent.” The accompanying photograph showed a man with a full beard and shaved moustache in the Salafi style, a prominent prayer mark (a “raisin” in the Egyptian vernacular) on his forehead. Behind the man is a wallpaper of Muslim pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Mecca. A framed portrait of then-general and coup master Abdel Fattah el-Sisi leans against beige tiles stickered with several Qur’anic verses. The headline limits the military’s support base to (secular) liberals, while the image shows us it actually extends beyond this narrow stratum.

With some exceptions, such as analyses published in this series, most scholarly accounts dovetail with media framings of Egypt’s fraught political scene since the 2011 revolution as primarily a struggle between secularism and Islamism. But the “secularism versus Islamism” narrativ­e is a political one—it performs important legitimizing labor for a plethora of social actors in Egypt, from the Brotherhood­ to deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak’s allies and both liberal and leftist activists alike. It is, however, of very limited analytical utility in making critical sense of what is actually at stake in the current impasse for the many Egyptians who do not subscribe to a secularized conception of government, yet whose religiosity cannot be conflated with the Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. (more…)

When I first arrived in Yemen, early in 1978, I found a virtual janna, a country building itself up by the sandalstraps, people who were welcoming, tribesmen who did more than wear their honor on their sleeves, a sense that the future would bring good things. It was not a land frozen in time, despite the lack of infrastructure and Western amenities, but a force for change as Yemenis took to entrepreneurship as second nature (which it, of course, always was). Development was in the air and on the ground, as bilateral and United Nations agencies poured money into Yemen, much of it ineffectual and wasted. In 1978 USAID was sponsoring a major sorghum improvement project in Yemen, a boondoggle that did little more than collect seeds for the University of Arizona’s seed bank. Given what I learned about Yemeni farmers’ knowledge, they should have been giving advice to the United States on how to grow sorghum. Much ado was made about building up the capacity of the central government, although the money flowing in through the various programs invited corruption rather than sustainable growth. Still, I have felt over the years that Yemenis, by and large, have the resolve and grit to persevere.

In the past three and a half decades Yemen has experienced ups and downs. A population estimated around 6 million or less back then has skyrocketed to some 24 million today. With the decline in subsistence agriculture, which at least filled stomachs, poverty and malnutrition are greater today than they were in 1978. The devastating loss of remittance wealth, which fueled Yemen’s grass-roots development in the 1980s, has led to chronic unemployment. The much touted unification in 1990, a kalashnikov wedding in hindsight, could not overcome the power politics and regional rivalry that have played out in the last two decades. The removal, or at least side-lining, of Ali Abdullah Salih has thus far not resulted in progress towards a peaceful solution to Yemen’s agonizing conflicts. The problem is not so much the inability of Yemen to renew itself, but the continual interference from outside forces. (more…)

Veiled Somali Girls Playing [“xalaal”] Soccer

Soccer: A barometer of Al Shabab’s retreat in Somalia

By James M. Dorsey, Mideast Soccer Blog, October 5, 2012

Soccer is one barometer of the increasingly successful drive to deprive militant Al Shabab fighters of their grip on large chunks of war-torn Somalia.

With the recent withdrawal of the Al Qaida-linked militants from the port city of Kismayo, the last major rebel-held town, the increasing return of soccer to a football-crazy country where under Al Shahab rule enthusiasm for the beautiful game involved a greater act of courage and defiance than perhaps anywhere else in the world and soccer became a front line in the battle against the Islamists, football highlights the country’s changing battle lines.

The extent of Al Shabab’s retreat is evident from the fact that a campaign that started with the Somali Football Association (SFA) backed by local businessmen and world soccer body FIFA luring child soldiers away from Al Shabab which banned the playing and watching of soccer, and turning them into national youth team stars has mushroomed into the revival of national and regional competitions. For the first time in more than two decades, matches are being played at night, teams travel in relative safety within the country and war-ravaged sports facilities, including Mogadishu’s national stadium, once one of East Africa’s most impressive filled with 70,000 passionate fans during games that was used by the Al Shabab as an arms depot and training facility, are being refurbished. (more…)

What we talk about when we talk about Egypt’s Salafis
By Haroon Moghul, Religion Dispatches, May 3, 2012

After their strong showing in the Egyptian elections, Salafis are a hot topic. But despite all the talk of Salafis, we still have a difficult time defining Salafism. Take Wendell Steavenson’s recent New Yorker piece, “Radicals Rising,” a portrait of Salafi politicians in Alexandria, Egypt.

Steavenson defines Salafism as “a strain of Islamic fundamentalism that emphasizes the original tenets and practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.” Steavenson’s essay is worth reading—don’t get me wrong. But her definition doesn’t actually distinguish Salafis from most other Muslims.

Islam is rooted in the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad. This applies to Salafis (usually considered Sunni) as much as it does to Shi’a Muslims. For both, Muhammad embodies the Qur’an, and they in turn try to embody Muhammad. (more…)