The Middle East Channel

Yemen’s fitful dialogue

It wasn't too long ago when Yemen launched its ostensibly inclusive National Dialogue process. The conference, which started on March 18, was meant to mend the wounds of the society and lead to the promulgation of the Yemeni constitution. But whoever thought that six months were sufficient for reconciliation and change was overly ambitious. The conference uncovered deep-rooted differences that confounded its participants and further polarized discussions, leading to a further indefinite delay.

In order to salvage the situation, the government of Yemen issued a statement on August 21 apologizing to the people of the southern, eastern, and northern provinces of the country for the wars and military campaigns launched during the Saleh regime. At the outset, the move seemed to be mature and reconciliatory, but it had counter effects on the ground. The apology came across as insipid at a time when the government has been either aggressive or ambivalent toward these areas. To make matters worse, the government exerted no effort in conducting consultations on the draft prior to issuing the statement. If it had done so, it would have probably been advised to remove some of its belligerent language that has inflamed, rather than quelled, the fury of many Yemenis. 

There is little evidence that the current government is capable of addressing different societal grievances that were unleashed after the Arab Spring uprisings. Yemen is imploding in more than one region: The Southern secessionist Hirak movement is controlling the South, the Tihami Hirak movement recently emerged to protest the disenfranchisement of its region, and the Northern city of Sadaa has been left to fight the Salafis with minimal protection from the government. Other cities like Marib and al-Jawf, which were previously out of control, still maintain their dangerous reputations. The government and Friends of Yemen have shown that their attention is focused on the political process in Sanaa, and have scant ability when it comes to responding to crisis outside of the capital.

The National Dialogue turned into a self-indulgent process more concerned with placating politicians than serving people. As pressure on achieving a successful outcome mounts, politicians resort to striking deals that are incongruent with their constituencies. This is conspicuous in the case of the Southern representatives who were cherry picked to advocate for federalism, in lieu of the right of self-determination, for which the majority of the South is asking.

It is perhaps time to realize that the great expectations of the National Dialogue Conference that were envisaged at the beginning need to be tempered. At the start of the process, policymakers felt that this is the only way to save the country from a real crisis, and as such downplayed any challenges. The international players, too, were eager to present Yemen as a successful case for the Arab Spring, remaining unusually positive on the dialogue. While some level of overzealousness at the start of the dialogue was expected -- as well as the lethargy toward the end -- the polarization that followed was not. Yemen today is more divided and further from a consensus than it was six months ago.

In the halls of the Movenpick hotel, the National Dialogue Conference comprises an impressive gathering of different strands of Yemeni elites with a disenchanting sense of partisanship. It is akin to walking into a spectacular wedding where no one wants to get married. Granted that top intellectuals, activists and civil society groups are present, the majority of these participants (besides the 10 percent parliamentarians) are not people who would get elected at any given point in time. Power and influence in the Movenpick reside with individuals who either have party affiliation or had former cabinet positions.

The General People's Congress and Islah Party representatives have an astute alliance in the conference; they both are firmly focused on reducing the rising threat of the Houthis who seem to have garnered a countrywide popularity that could challenge them at polling stations. As such, Sanaa based politicians trivialize issues that seem to be less threatening. Fiery and contentious politics such as the secessionist demands in the South are exclusive to the Southern region, which does not constitute any electoral majority. Southerners are outnumbered demographically, represented by different polarizing figures, and their plight is isolated from the majority. This is all too convenient for elites in the capital who sideline Southern politics, frequently capitalizing on the leadership divide among the Southern ranks.

There is a crisis of confidence intensifying in the National Dialogue and spilling over to the country. Mainstream politicians may show humility, but they cunningly exercise control. Just recently, senior Northern-based leaders from the National Dialogue cobbled together some deals purportedly to save the dialogue process and the future of the country; this was done without the inclusion of all participants, especially the Southerners who felt betrayed and protested the "cooked-up process." As a result, around 85 Southern representatives suspended their participation from the dialogue based on the secretive nature of informal coalitions. The absence of the Southern participants now is filling the dialogue with ambiguity and caused a further delay to the process, which was supposed to end this month.

It is well known that the South is now beyond the control of the government of Yemen. The Southern street is rife with resentment over the current economic situation and fraught with instability. There is a protest in the South at every national and symbolic Yemeni holiday calling against unity. The ongoing rage is fuelled by current and former Southern leaders who vehemently believe in secession. But what exactly is the government doing to bridge the gap with the South? Absolutely every wrong action from the authoritarian handbook. The government ostensibly promises development and change, while hiding, minimizing, and dismissing the desire of the South for self-determination.

Many activists believe that the call for secession is a tactic intended only to raise the bar high in order to score points in the negotiations over federalism. Given the only two choices between secession and federalism, the latter appears to be the lesser of two evils. But if federalism is the only option for Yemen, the street has certainly not caught up with it. Furthermore, the National Dialogue has done very little to explain the haphazard ideas for federalism to the public. Many regions in Yemen desire some sort of administrative and financial autonomy but are fearful that a federal system will still not protect them from the greedy elites who have always managed to find creative ways to exploit their people.

The National Dialogue should tread carefully when it comes to negotiating the new administrative plans. The past period raised enough red flags that should prompt an assessment on the effectiveness of this process: there is reluctance in achieving consensus, delay in decision making, and secretive deals among participants which have broken confidence in the process. As it is, the current design of negotiations risks political positions hardening. Furthermore, the political focus overshadowed the economic reality. In order to show real commitment to change, the government of Yemen and donors including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will have to work at making an economic investment that extends outside of Movenpick-land to the real one.

Fundamentally, the process needs to shift toward making the government of Yemen work for the people through providing much needed basic services while working on the constitutional process. More attention has to be given to the polarizing politics of the North-South divide. The first step is acknowledging that this divide exists; otherwise Yemen will find itself conceding political space to extremists of every stripe who appear to be more in tune with the frustrated society.

Fatima Abo Alasrar is an independent Middle East policy analyst from Yemen and a former OSI International Policy Fellow.

Fatima Abo Alasrar

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