Middle East

Yemen: Heightened anxiety in Sanaa as Houthis tighten grip

Houthi fighters ride a patrol truck on a street near a gathering for followers of the Houthi movement in Sanaa on 1 February 2015 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Houthis overran the Yemeni capital Sanaa in September and have tightened their control of the city

Wherever you go in Sanaa these days, you do not get far without being stopped and searched by groups of armed men.

Some are traditionally dressed, with long gowns, sandals and daggers; others are in military uniform.

For a non-Yemeni it is hard to differentiate these militiamen from regular soldiers.

They belong to the Houthis, a group of Shia rebels from northern Yemen, who overran the capital last September.

Last month the rebels took over key government buildings, including the presidential palace and the parliament, and put the president under house arrest.

The Houthis have long complained of being persecuted and marginalised, but now they are in full control of the city, and have set up checkpoints everywhere.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption There has been a political vacuum since the the president, PM and cabinet announced their resignations

The group, which formed in 1992, was named after its founder Hussein al-Houthi, though it recently started calling itself Ansar Allah, or God's Supporters. They no longer like being called Houthis.

"We are the people, we are the revolution," a militant tells me at a demonstration in support of the Houthis.

Fear for the future

The Houthis do not only brag about their military strength but also their huge number of followers.

When they called on various factions to meet to discuss the current political crisis last week, thousands came together for what was more like a popular conference, held in a huge stadium.

There was excitement and joy among the audience, they cheered and chanted slogans.

They called for Yemeni unity but many other political forces do not trust them.

They say the Houthis want to put facts on the ground and impose their own solution to the power vacuum which has existed since the president, prime minister and cabinet resigned last month.

Image caption Thousands of Houthi supporters met to discuss the political crisis last week
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Outside the gathering, heavily armed Houthi fighters secured the area
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Inside, the audience cheered and called for Yemeni unity but many political forces do no trust the Houthis

"It feels more stable under the Houthis, the outgoing government was very weak. But we are worried about the future," said Ahmed, a merchant of copper handicrafts in the old city of Sanaa, once a sightseeing area.

"We can't live in this stagnation and uncertainty forever," he added, looking out for customers.

Tough life

The priority for many Yemenis is more about their everyday life, rather than who comes to power.

More than half the population of 24 million live in poverty. They have no access to basic needs.

In Sanaa, residents have only two or three hours of electricity a day. Many cannot afford to buy generators. Women wash dishes and clothes in the street.

With no water at home, housewives bring their children everyday to some of the public basins, which abound in poor neighbourhoods, to do the laundry and clean their kitchenware.

Image caption Residents have only two or three hours of electricity a day in Sanaa
Image caption Many people in Sanaa do not have access to basic needs

"I wish I can have my bike back. My dad sold it for $50 (45 euros). He needed the money," nine-year-old Ali told me, as he waited for his mother to finish washing dishes in a yard, at the back of an old mosque.

The constant refrain I got from many people, regardless of their level of education or social status, was how life was hard and getting worse.

While political negotiations continue behind closed doors, in the streets armed men and concerned civilians both anxiously wait.

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