For centuries families like the Huthis had supplied the imams who had ruled northern Yemen for more than 1,000 years. They were Zaydis, a Shiite offshoot that took their name from Muhammad’s great-great grandson Zayd bin Ali. Adopting the flexibility of marginalized groups, Zaydis charted a sort of middle course between Sunni and Shia — they were fivers, both the unofficial fifth school of Sunni Islam and followers of the fifth imam in Shiite Islam. Through the centuries in Yemen they were almost indistinguishable from their lowland Sunni neighbors, save for the fact that Zaydis had an extra line in their call to prayer and held their hands differently. The two groups intermarried and prayed in each other’s mosques. But a revolution in 1962 overthrew all that and abolished the Zaydi state. Instead of an imam, Yemen had a president and the ruling class of families like the Huthis suddenly found themselves powerless.
In early 2003, a year after the initial protests broke out, Salih passed through the region on his way to Saudi Arabia. Stopping for prayers, Huthi’s men greeted him with more of their chants. Their chants saw them use popular frustration to both win local support and to implicitly criticize Salih. Muslims worldwide, they believed, were under attack from the U.S. and Israel, just as Zaydis in Yemen — the true Muslims — were under attack from Salih and his government. The Zaydi demonstrators denied this with wide-eyed innocence, claiming they were seeking only to “defend Islam.” But what they were doing was obvious to everyone in Yemen, including Salih.
Huthi’s eloquent, deeply religious speeches had tapped into a current of discontent in Yemen. A massively corrupt government, rising food prices, and high unemployment pushed people to action, and not just in their home region. Every Friday after prayers, Zaydi activists, inspired by Huthi and his followers, chanted outside the Great Mosque in Sanaa. Tucked deep inside the old city, Sanaa’s oldest mosque, built by a companion of the prophet, was now a symbol of the resistance. And the movement was spreading fast. Throughout the mountain towns of north Yemen, men were repeating the chants.