Yemenis Demand Accountability from Conflict Parties in "Revolution of the Hungry" Protests

On Saturday October 6, protests broke out at the University of San’a in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital, the University of Ibb, and the city of Ta’iz. Demonstrations by women in particular have also been reported in the city of Ibb, calling for an end to hunger. These protests, organized under the title “Revolution of the Hungry,” called attention to the deteriorating economic conditions in the country as well as the widespread suffering of Yemenis from starvation and malnutrition, and express anger at Houthi governance practices which have worsened the economic and food-security situation for civilians in areas under their control. Nearly two months before, there were reports that Yemeni activists had called for citizens to participate in a “Revolution of the Hungry” in San’a against the Houthis.

The day before the protests, Houthi-controlled media channel al-Masirah reported that citizens of San’a were preparing to protest under the title “Revolution Against the Alliance of Criminality and Starvation in Commemoration of the Martyrdom of Imam Zayd.” ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi urged protestors to march both to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Zayd, a central religious figure for Zaydi Muslims, and to protest the Saudi-led coalition’s practices of economic warfare and starvation of the people of Yemen. It appears that this report may have been an attempt to either co-opt the anti-Houthi protests or to make them appear as expressions of support for the Houthi movement. According to Middle East Eye, the Houthis announced armed demonstrations in the same places that anti-Houthi activists had previously announced Revolution of the Hungry protests, with the goal of discouraging protesters from gathering.

Meanwhile, pro-government news source Yemen Now tweeted that al-Masirah released a video of journalist Ali al-Sharabi, who was reportedly arrested and tortured by the Houthis. The tweet states that al-Sharabi called for protesters not to take part in the demonstrations, but that he was arrested two weeks before word of the protests had begun to circulate.

Houthi Response to Demonstrations

UK-based news outlet al-Arab noted that a large campaign of preemptive arrests of students and activists by Houthi militias was reported in San’a in an apparent effort to prevent the demonstrations from taking place. These efforts having apparently failed, the response by Houthi authorities to the outbreak of protests was to deploy militias to the university. These forces included the Zaynabiat, an all-female brigade whose purpose is to quell demonstrations by women, and who joined Houthi militias in attacking protesters with batons and electroshock weapons, arresting a number of demonstrators as well. The Houthi response to demonstrations in the city of Ibb was likewise to attack and arrest a number of university students; it is unclear at this time whether the protests in the two cities were linked, however.

Local sources UAE-based news site al-Ittihad, which is strongly anti-Houthi, put the estimate of those arrested at the University of San’a at 65. Pro-Hadi news source September Net numbered the protesters arrested by Houthi militias in San’a at 50 in one article, and reported that dozens of women activists in Ibb were attacked and dispersed; activists reportedly confirmed that the Houthis used live bullets on protesters as well. In another article the following day, September Net also reported that protester and San’a University student Sami al-Maswary died after being stabbed by Houthi militia members. The article also cited sources claiming that as many as 80 people had been abducted by the militias over the previous two days.   

Providing further details of the attacks on students in San’a, Ibb Press released a statement from San’a University student Ro’a al-Jawfi who led a group of protesters at the university and was imprisoned by the Houthi militias as a result. She states that “the uprising was not against any party or group, but against the rising prices and expenses in the country,” and describes being attacked with electric batons, put on a bus and taken to an unfamiliar location, and forced along with other protesters to sign pledges that they would not demonstrate again. Another article from al-Tagheer reports that San’a University professor Ilham al-Eryani was also beaten and verbally assaulted by the Zaynabiat that day, after she refused to be subjected to a search at the university entrance. The above-linked Middle East Eye article stated that many protesters thought women would be more safe demonstrating due to cultural taboos against arresting women, however this has not been the case.

According to the report by al-Arab, efforts by the Houthis to dissuade potential demonstrators have included media campaigns threatening anyone caught participating in protests regardless of gender and displays of military force in public spaces suspected of being potential demonstration locations. The Yemeni Commission for Monitoring Human Rights, the Mothers of Abductees Association, and the internationally recognized government have denounced the arrests/kidnappings of protesters by the Houthis. Minister of Social Affairs and Labor Dr. Abthaj al-Kamal likewise condemned the kidnapping, beating and imprisonment of 15 women from San’a University, according to September Net.

Since then, Houthi militias have continued to crack down on potential demonstrations.  Southern Yemeni news site Aden al-Ghad reported on October 14 that the Houthis had conducted a large campaign of arrests of students at San’a University after armed groups including Zaynabiat searched their phones under threat of force. On October 16, Minister of Information M’amar al-Eryani stated that the Houthis were forcing female teachers in San’a to carry weapons to protests today or be removed from their positions. Later, on October 23, Aden al-Ghad reported that Houthi militias had installed a number of checkpoints and patrols around San’a in the face of the recent unrest, and attacked a women’s demonstration the evening before in a market in the south of the city. On the same day, the pro-government news site Yemen Now tweeted that there had been a large-scale Houthi militia presence in the city, particularly at night, due to fears of more Revolution of the Hungry protests.

Scope of “Revolution of the Hungry” Movement

Al-Jazeera Arabic reported in an October 6 article that protests over Yemen’s economic crisis had been ongoing for six days against both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition/Hadi government alliance. This article also states that a large web campaign began over a week prior, which called for a “Revolution of the Hungry” against not only the Houthis but also the Hadi government and Saudi-led coalition. Supporting this perspective, on October 4 Al-Masdar Online noted that protests in Ta’iz over the collapse of the Yemeni rial denounced the roles played by all parties to the conflict, stating that some protesters expressed pro-Hadi sentiments as well. These Ta’iz protests appeared to renew on October 11, continuing to criticize not only at Houthi practices, but also those of the Hadi government and the Saudi-led coalition.

It is not immediately clear to what degree, if any, the recent protests in Taiz, San’a, Ibb, and other parts of Yemen against currency depreciation and high prices are linked or to what degree those in Houthi-controlled areas represent a direct challenge to Houthi authority. One August article from Asharq al-Awsat reports that demonstrations in San’a were called for in protest of various Houthi practices, including failure to support government efforts to halt currency depreciation, seizing food aid, and increasing already-inflated fuel prices. Likewise, a report from Middle East Eye states that the demonstrations in San’a were organized by anti-Houthi activists; however another activist interviewed for the same report stated that the demonstrations were not against Houthi authority but rather against the economic and food security situation in the country. The report implies, regardless, that due to Houthi repression of the recent demonstrations they risk turning public opinion against themselves in the areas under their control and inspiring larger-scale protests.