Yemen: Will the Houthis help empower the muhamasheen?

Ansar Allah, as the Houthis prefer to be known, have won over non-Zaidi’s since their Sept. 21 takeover of the capital. One of the speakers at the three-day national dialogue that Ansar Allah held last week was a member of the muhamasheen, or the “marginalized.”

“We’ve come to you on behalf of one million marginalized people to [tell you that we are on] your side,” said a veteran advocate and member of the community, Mohammed Al-Qairaie.

The speech garnered some support from the community, as well as a lot of criticism.

Critics within the muhamasheen community accused the Houthis of appropriating the community’s struggles to improve their political image. Al-Qairaie says the shared history of marginalization between the two groups should make them natural allies.

Between a Houthi and a hard place

Al-Qairaie, who left the Yemeni Socialist Party to join the General People’s Congress (GPC), told the Yemen Times that the muhamasheen have to deal with the facts on the ground.

“All political parties have let the muhamasheen down,” he said. “The Houthis are in control now­—so why not try them too?” he asked.

Mohammed Marzouqi, the head of the Street Cleaners Union, which mostly consists of muhamasheen, accused Al-Qairaie of giving the Houthis an opportunity to “exploit the agony of the muhamasheen to achieve political gains.”

If the Houthis are misappropriating the struggles of the muhamasheen for political gain, they wouldn’t be the first.

Bogumila Hall, a Phd candidate at the European University Institute in Florence, is writing her thesis on the politics of marginalized groups and has spent years studying the muhamasheen. According to Hall’s research, 90 percent of the muhamasheen community supported or was part of the former ruling party, the GPC.

The head of the National Union for the Poor, Noman Qaed Al-Hudeithi, said muhamasheen joined the party as individuals—not representatives of the muhamasheen—because the muhamasheen “issue” was non-existent for the GPC. Al-Hudeithi, a former member of the GPC, said that the link to the GPC explained why very few muhamasheen joined the protests in 2011.

The National Union for the Poor —one of the groups that represents muhamasheen—was partly funded by the ruling party, and they simply could not afford to lose their “allies,” according to Hall.

In 2011, Sheikh Mojahed, a member of the muhamasheen community and a GPC loyalist, discouraged people from participating in protests. Mojahed and others rationalized the decision post factum, saying that they were for change, but not revolution.

Leaders within the muhamasheen community say that their disenfranchisement, which results in dependency on external funding, limits their independence and the extent to which they can be “revolutionary.”

Many ordinary slumdwellers do not accept these justifications, according to Hall’s research. They have accused these leaders of accepting external funding not on behalf of the community and its struggles, but for the profit of the National Union of the Poor and its individual members.


The muhamasheen are not one, homogenous community, and their disagreements go beyond the Houthis. The community is not even united around the label “marginalized.”

“’Marginalization’ is a problematic word which doesn’t really say a lot. Many muhamasheen themselves are against this label, as they say that anybody can be ‘muhamash’ in Yemen today, even Ali Abdullah Saleh,” according to Bogna.

The National Union for the Poor has embraced the word “akhdam”—which means servants. Akhdam is rejected by many other community members, who consider the term derogatory.

The National Union says the word better reflects the specific type of exclusion that muhamasheen face, which is unique and not comparable to others.

Marzouqi rejected calls from the community to reclaim the word, and insists that he is “marginalized” and not a “servant.”

“[This] shows that ‘akhdam’ are not monolithic, and that there are competing self-representations and political visions and strategies within the group,” Hall said.

The problem is not simple marginalization, but also vulnerability and dehumanization, she added.

“So in a way, their ‘misery’ is recognized, but it is also inscribed into them by the dominant society because ‘that’s their culture,’ they are ‘different.’”

“Objects” or “subjects?”

The muhamasheen are rarely framed as political actors who are aware of their needs and aspirations and “can speak,” but rather—at best—as objects of a humanitarian mission.

“[The Houthis] seek to bring justice and fairness to the oppressed and deprived,” said Abdulrahman Al-Ahnoomi, a Houthi media activist. “Unfortunately, instead of appreciating the Houthis for this humanitarian step, some opponents have attacked [us].”

The National Dialogue Conference, the ten-month-long peace talks that brought together Yemen’s various parties, factions and groups, was seen as a historic moment by the muhamasheen because it was the first time the community was represented in institutional politics. The muhamasheen were in charge of speaking for themselves and articulating what the community needed and wanted, as well as directly participating in decision-making.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative, which mapped out the country’s transition, called for the peace talks. That transition is no longer viable.

Following the resignation of the Cabinet and the president on Jan. 22, the Houthis issued a “constitutional declaration” on Feb. 6, announcing the dissolution of Parliament and the formation of a 551-member national council.

Abdulmalik Al-Houthi says he wants an inclusive national council, which will in turn decide the five-member presidential council that will rule the country for an interim two years.

Will the Houthis make room for the muhamasheen at the table? Only time will tell.