The Middle East Channel

The 'Non-Conclusion' of Yemen’s National Dialogue

Yemen held the closing ceremony of its National Dialogue Conference (NDC) on Saturday, January 25. This followed 10 months of talks among more than 500 delegates from all parts of the country. Delegates met to decide the outcome of Yemen's political transition after mass protests forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign in November 2011. While the conference has been hailed a success by its internal leadership and some external financial sponsors, it concludes without firm plans for a future government beyond general ideas of federalized parliamentary rule. As a result, there is good reason to view the NDC's closing ceremony as a non-conclusion, or at best, only a partial conclusion.

The poor result in the Yemeni capital Sanaa is unsurprising given the large number of problems facing the country over the past two decades, since its national unification in 1990 and first elections in 1993 resulted in a civil war in 1994. Yemenis are the poorest people in the Arab world, enduring severe economic hardship over the past three years, including unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition levels over 50 percent. Yemen has also been experiencing severe environmental crisis, water shortages, and political violence now dividing the country along multiple regional lines. On Saturday, transitional President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told the NDC, "I did not take over a nation. I took over a capital where gunshots are continuous day and night, where roadblocks fill the streets. I took over an empty bank that has no wages and a divided security apparatus and army." 

In order to understand Yemen's current predicament at the "non-conclusion" of its NDC, it is necessary to grasp three related points. First, unlike Arab states that were surprised by the outbreak of mass street protests in 2011, Yemen had already experienced years of open rebellion prior to 2011. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, the international community warily viewed Yemen as a potential failed state, quite unlike circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, and other "Arab Spring" states. For this reason, when the first waves of dramatic history-making events reached the shores of Yemen in 2011, they arrived not as a potential new beginning, as elsewhere in the Arab world. Instead, they arrived as a potential conclusion to an old set of problems stretching back at least to 1990, or even earlier to the 1960s.

Second, Yemen's NDC had to wrestle with a set of unresolved conflicts, which had badly weakened the government prior to 2011. These conflicts existed in multiple regions of the country, creating rival authorities to the state. In order to succeed, the NDC needed to attract participants who could legitimately represent all groups in the country. This delayed the start of the NDC for an entire year. The old regime's strongest and best organized rival, the Houthi movement located north of Sanaa among followers of a martyred Zaidi Shiite leader, agreed to participate from the beginning. However, the Houthis occasionally suspended attendance due to a variety of grievances. Meanwhile, south of Sanaa, the main leaders of Hirak, the southern protest movement, decided to boycott the NDC, while seeking full independence from the north. The NDC managed to recruit a few dozen southerners who presumed to act in the name of Hirak. But this remained the major weakness of the national dialogue. Other regional protest groups east and west of Sanaa were not even considered for admission to the NDC.

Third, after the NDC commenced, participants served on one of nine subcommittees designed to reach consensus on an equal number of future government concerns, including economic development and civil rights. Two subcommittees, state foundations and the southern issue, were arguably more important than others because they would co-determine basic structures of government, which would necessarily influence every other NDC outcome. For example, if settlement of the southern issue led to new state foundations similar to Yemen's pre-1990 division along north-south lines, then it would alter the range of possible outcomes in the fields of economics and civil rights. This dilemma slowed the work of the entire conference, resulting in still more delays beyond its originally scheduled conclusion in late September 2013. The NDC risked complete failure without consensus on the southern issue. Thus, conference leaders appealed to international donors to fund an extension for an additional four months. Yet even this extension only produced the NDC's eventual "non-conclusion."

The underlying importance of these three points is obvious -- namely, there is a direct line running between them, indicating a fundamental problem from the outset of the NDC due to its failure to include all regional groups in conflict with the regime prior to 2011. This fact is easy to ignore when the NDC is celebrated as a success. Those responsible for organizing it often want to compare favorably the country's political transition, since 2011, with what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, across the same time period. They claim Yemen's transition is better because it relied on peaceful dialogue, instead of disputed elections and armed conflict. Yet this mistakenly assumes the moment of transition in Yemen was the same as the other Arab states. And it overlooks that the NDC was less a new start, afforded by an unexpected moment of crisis, than it was an opportunity to conclude an old set of problems, which had generated permanent crisis for years.

To grasp the full implications of the NDC's "non-conclusion," it is necessary to review what happened after September 2013, when international donors agreed to fund an extension until January 2014. Once donors were on board, a small group of 16 people (called "the 8+8 subcommittee of the southern issue," consisting of eight northerners and eight southerners) was selected to decide the outcome of the southern issue. The chair of this "8+8" subcommittee, Muhammad Ali Ahmed, had headed the southern issue subcommittee as a southern ally of Hadi, who comes from the same southern province. Hadi originally recruited Ahmed to replace the previous head of the southern issue subcommittee, a very influential tribal sheikh who resigned in April 2013 due to grievances about the NDC's poor representation of southern interests, particularly the interests of Hirak. In the meantime, Ahmed and other southern representatives felt compelled to adopt a strong bargaining position in favor of Hirak's demand for southern independence.

In the "8+8" subcommittee, Ahmed and his allies continued pushing for a unitary southern region equal in power to northern areas. (Southern lands are wealthier, and more than twice the size of northern lands; yet the northern population is more than four times the southern population). Leading northern members of the "8+8" subcommittee countered with a proposal to form a new federal state consisting of two regions in the south and four regions in the north. Unable to break this impasse, Ahmed and his allies began boycotting the NDC. Eventually Hadi and the conference leadership replaced Ahmed as head of the "8+8" subcommittee, while recruiting yet another new group of southerners who expressed willingness to accept the six-region federal proposal. Nonetheless, the "8+8" subcommittee never made a final recommendation. Instead, it papered over the disagreement by suggesting Hadi form a technical committee to choose between the last two options under consideration: either a federal state of two regions (north and south), or six regions.

It was only by postponing the decision about how many federal regions would exist in the new Yemen that Hadi was able to conduct the closing ceremony of the NDC. Each subcommittee of the national dialogue had been able to complete its work, and file a definitive final report, except the subcommittee on the southern issue. Even the subcommittee on state foundations accepted the idea of Yemen adopting federalism under some form to be determined at a later date. Prior to the NDC's closing ceremony, Hadi extended his own term as transitional president for one year, in order to appoint and monitor two new committees. One, a committee of technical experts, will choose between a federal state of two or six regions; and the other, a committee of legal experts, will draft a new constitution based on recommendations of the NDC. Once these two committees finish their work, a referendum will be held to seek public approval of the result. And finally, voters will elect a new president.

The timeline to complete all of the above steps is one year, or any time prior to the end of January 2015. This would be a reasonable timeline, if the NDC had concluded with consensus about the country's future direction. Yet there was never consensus at Yemen's national dialogue. As a result, it remains an open question whether or not the country can accomplish everything on its agenda for the coming year. There is still a great deal riding on a difficult decision about the number of federal regions, and the inherent trouble of drawing boundary lines between the regions. This is bound to upset more than one constituency in the country. In truth, the outcome of Yemen's political transition now depends on the decision of a technical committee working under Hadi's supervision. Hadi has recently been quoted saying "all of Yemen's problems can be resolved through a federal design" if the number and location of federal regions are determined "with the aim of getting rid of regionalism and sectarianism."

Don't bet on it. Around the country, there are disgruntled members of various regional groups that did not participate in the NDC. These groups continue to rebel in a variety of ways. This is true in the eastern Hadhramaut province, where a tribal alliance recently launched an armed campaign to liberate its territory; and in the western region of Tihama, where civil disobedience is being used to assert local self-rule for the first time in nearly a century. South of Sanaa, Hirak is mobilizing stronger resistance, while north of Sanaa, sectarian warfare continues to spread, as Houthi supporters expand territory under their control. Meanwhile, inside the capital, remnants of the old regime still exist. They denounce the outcome of the NDC, accusing foreign powers of taking over the country and running it as a trusteeship. They have also resorted to increasingly fiery, religious rhetoric, which will aggravate sectarian tensions. By this time next year, it is hard to predict the shape of the new Yemen because current trends are headed in the opposite direction, away from the future and toward the past. By 2015, political conditions are perhaps as likely to resemble the 1950s, a period of rule by imams and sultans prior to Yemen's modern revolutions, as the 1980s, preceding national unification of its north and south republics.

Stephen W. Day is an adjunct professor of international affairs at Rollins College in Florida and author of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union (Cambridge University Press, 2012.)

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Tunisian Parliament Adopts New Constitution

Tunisia's constituent assembly overwhelmingly passed a new constitution Sunday night after two years of bargaining between the country's Islamists and secularists. Last week, the assembly voted on each article of the draft ahead of Sunday's vote on the full document. Out of the 216-member constituent assembly, 200 people voted in favor of the charter. Its completion has come three years after the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. After the vote, assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar said, "This constitution, without being perfect, is one of consensus." He continued, "We had today a new rendezvous with history to build a democracy founded on rights and equality." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Tunisia "reached another historic milestone" and said the constitution is a model to be followed by other countries aiming to reform. Prior to the vote, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa appointed a caretaker cabinet composed mainly of independents and technocrats. The move came as part of a deal to end a political crisis between Tunisia's Islamists and secularists, and the body is expected to govern until elections likely to be held later this year.

Syria

Syrian peace talks have resumed Monday in Geneva, with the contentious issue of a power transfer set for discussion. The opposition has demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resign while the government delegation has maintained Assad's role is not up for debate. There is no indication the government's position has changed. Over the weekend, U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, managed to get the two parties into the same room for negotiations for the first time. The talks to this point have focused on humanitarian issues, and made progress with the Syrian government agreeing to allow women and children to leave a barricaded area of the city of Homs. However, the deal fell short in what international mediators were seeking, hoping for humanitarian access for U.N. aid convoys. The United States is pushing for Syria to allow the convoys into the Old City of Homs, where it said "people are starving," and called for all civilians to be allowed to leave the besieged area. According to Syrian State TV, a Syrian official and a U.N. representative are meeting in Homs Monday to discuss how to conduct the evacuation of women and children from Homs. Meanwhile, the United States has resumed nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, after cutting off deliveries of communications equipment and other items when al Qaeda linked militants overtook warehouses near the Turkish border over a month ago.

Headlines  

  • Egypt has announced that presidential elections will precede parliamentary elections, meanwhile interim President Adly Mansour promoted General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to field marshal.
  • A Libyan militia commander was freed in Egypt after five Egyptian diplomats abducted in Tripoli were released, though officials say there was no deal.
  • Bahraini police and protesters clashed Sunday in a village west of Manama after a funeral for Fadhel Abbas, who died in custody.
  • Ansar Beit al-Madqis has claimed responsibility for downing an Egyptian helicopter, killing five soldiers, while at least 49 people were killed in clashes at protests in Egypt over the weekend against the military-backed government.   
  • Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man and injured another in the northern Gaza Strip after several Palestinians threw stones and rolled burning tires, according to the Israeli military. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Letting Go of Revolutionary Purity' (Hesham Sellam, Jadaliyya)

"Immediately following Morsi's ouster, observers and activists debated the question of whether 30 June 2013 signified a second wave of the January 25 Revolution or simply a ruthless coup that killed Egypt's 'young democracy.' Let us set aside the sheer simplicity of this debate. It is clear today that reducing these complex events to 'just a coup' will not redeem the Morsi government's exclusionary policies or negate popular opposition to his rule. In contrast, calling it a 'revolution,' as pro-military commentators continue to do, can never magically impart democratic legitimacy to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's military regime. Nor will it mask the fact that the current regime's abuses have surpassed anything Egypt witnessed during the Morsi administration. In fact, the narrative of a June Revolution serves the current regime's efforts to negate the memory of the January 25 Revolution, and the basic demands for bread, freedom, and social justice around which Egyptians rallied three years ago. That same narrative also attempts to mask the growing list of crimes that army leaders and their allies in the domestic security apparatus have committed before and after 30 June. In this context, it is an act of resistance just to remember January 25, since to do so forces one to consider the chasm between the ideals of January 25 and the oppressive political order that rules the present.

Yet this recovery of a 'revolutionary purity' is for many a near impossible task. It is true that many activists continue to confront the military regime's abuses. Yet over the course of the past year the mood has clearly shifted in the way observers throughout the world perceive the quest for revolutionary change in Egypt. The faces and voices that international media used to associate with the idealism of this revolution are either in prison, in exile, silent, marginalized, or have tacitly or actively supported the military. To many outside (as well as inside) observers disappointed at the events of the past year terms like 'revolutionaries,' 'youth activists,' and 'January 25 youth' no longer evoke the courage, conviction, and principle they did three years ago. After witnessing many, though certainly not all, of these same actors condone the downfall of a democratically elected president last year and their subsequent silence on the military's abuses, for some observers these terms have come to denote naiveté, impulsiveness, and hypocrisy."

'Egypt's Revolution on the Margins' (H.A. Hellyer, CNN)

"On the third anniversary of the revolutionary uprising, that leaves one group left to account for -- the group that sparked it in the first place, and continued to fight for it without regard for partisan political interest.

Those original 'Jan25 revolutionaries,' made up of rights campaigners, civil society activists and others, had no plan during that 18 day uprising -- except to persist and persevere. They were joined by many others -- and no-one can now claim the uprising was theirs alone. The crowds that swept into the different squares of Egypt over those days were representative of Egyptian society in general -- not simply one sector of it.

But that portion of society that sparked the protests, those who continued to agitate for fundamental change, and to criticise, irrespective of who sat in the presidential palace -- they've already realised that just as they were on the margins on January 25 2011, they're still on them in 2014.

Three years later, many of them have been arrested for dissent against the current government. Many had gone into political parties, but they never reached critical mass. What they did have -- what they do have -- is this strange perseverance to continue speaking truth to power.

On January 25 2014, some may go out to remember the uprising where so many Egyptians decided to join them. Mostly, however, they'll probably take a deep breath as they see most Egyptians fall prey to an ultra-nationalism on the one hand, and a sectarian partisanship on the other. Back to the margins they may have gone -- but into oblivion, they refuse to go."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images