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Yemen’s National Dialogue: will it succeed?

Eleven months after the signature of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s [GCC] initiative and the  formation of the new Government of National Unity and nine months after the election of the interim President, where are we with Yemen's National Dialogue? Things are different this time - but are they any more likely to last?

 A quick reminder:  the GCC deal was intended to remove Ali Abdullah Saleh as president, establish a Government of National Unity, and open a 2 year transitional period during which the military and security institutions would be restructured, a national dialogue would be convened to prepare for a new political structure, including a review of the Constitution and the electoral system leading to new elections held by February 2014.

The Government of National Unity was formed in December 2012 and Ali Abdullah Saleh ceased to be president on the election of AbduRabbo Mansour Hadi on 24 February 2012.  Contrary to the expectations of many, President ARM Hadi has demonstrated both his independence from the previous regime [which he had served for close to two decades] and his skill at manoeuvring his way through an excessively difficult situation.

Fundamental improvement in the security situation is a big achievement….

The Transitional regime can also be credited with a number of other major achievements.  It has given priority to security issues in the belief that without security, nothing else can be addressed:

-   it ousted the armed fundamentalists [AQAP and Ansar al Shari’a] from their strongholds in Abyan and Shabwa, returning these areas under government control.  The relative ease with which this was achieved is further indication that these groups had in the past benefited from complicity by many agents of the previous regime.  Unfortunately, since their dispersal, they have assassinated a number of prominent military and security cadres:  this suggests that they still have some well-placed contacts in the security institutions.

-   although the wholesale restructuring of the army/security institutions is at an early stage,  the new President has successfully relieved of their positions some of the more prominent relatives and friends of his predecessor[1].  This ‘slicing’ approach is the only one which had any chance of success and, to date, it has resulted in a significant shift of loyalty in favour of the new regime of the main military and security institutions 

But the humanitarian and economic situations remain dire

Progress in security issues has unfortunately not been accompanied by notable economic improvements.  Although the supply of electricity is improving, living conditions for the majority of the population remain dire and the humanitarian situation abysmal, with over 10 million people suffering malnutrition and, in most cases, daily hunger, leading to bad health, long-term threats to child development and worsening mortality, let alone daily misery for the millions affected.  While foreign aid to the tune of USD 6.4 billion was promised at the Riyadh Pledging conference in early September, and a further USD 1.5 billion at the Friends of Yemen meeting on 27 September in New York,  there are few indications to date of steps taken to start disbursing these funds in the interests of the Yemeni population, other than the opening of UN offices and having agreed a Mutual Accountability Framework intended to address the concerns of external financiers about issues of transparency and corruption.  While some development financing may need months to design and prepare, other expenditure could start very rapidly.  In particular the destruction and damage in Abyan Governorate demand immediate reconstruction and repairs to allow the population to return and re-establish their livelihoods.  In addition to the problems of daily survival that this situation poses for the majority of the population, the lack of employment opportunities and of any signs of addressing the dire economic situation are major threats to the credibility of the  new regime. 

Inadequate action on the economic and social fronts can, in part, be attributed to the Government of National Unity’s inability to act as a single body whose sole priority is the solution of the country’s problems.  Instead,  it has been used by some political groups as a means to undermine other political entities, resulting in something akin to paralysis in certain ministries.

The National Dialogue

Arguably, the National Dialogue is the most important element of the Transitional Period as it will determine the long term political future of the country.  Although the Government of National Unity includes women as well as some youth who may be seen as representatives of the street uprisings of 2011, the National Dialogue is the only formal outcome of the sit-ins which demands full and adequate representation of women, youth and others who joined the uprisings.  It is the main opportunity for them to voice their demands, and achieve their hopes and ambitions.  According to the GCC agreement, the National Dialogue conference must include “all forces and political actors, including youth, the Southern Movement, the Houthis, other political parties, civil society representatives and women.  Women must be represented in all participating groups.”  Its responsibilities are of fundamental importance to the country’s future, and it is to discuss and agree on the following:

-   the process for the drafting of a new constitution, including the establishment of a constitutional drafting commission, the nature of constitutional reform, including the structure of the State and political reform

-   the Southern and Houthi issues, as well as other national issues

-   how to achieve a comprehensive democratic system, including reform of the civil service, the judiciary and local governance

-   national reconciliation and transitional justice, including human rights issues

-   the rights of vulnerable groups including children as well as the advancement of women

-   determining the priorities for reconstruction and sustainable economic development to create job opportunities and better economic, social and cultural services for all

A Preparation Committee of 25 members was formed in July 2012 and started work in August.  It includes a number of well respected individuals, 5 women [still very much a minority] and a few youth.  In September a further 6 members were added to increase the representation of youth.  Over recent months, the Committee has made significant progress in reaching agreement on mechanisms for the selection of participants, on a variety of procedures for the dialogue and, most importantly, it has done its best to ensure participation of all parties.  This has resulted in the inclusion of representatives of the low social status group known as muhamasheen  or akhdam.

Significantly, this has ensured the successful inclusion of the Huthi movement which, although it refuses to recognise the validity of the GCC initiative, has agreed to participate fully in the dialogue.  This is partly thanks to the fact that it is well organised and structure, and thus able to select representatives who are accepted by all. 

While there are still complaints from the youth/sit-in movement throughout the country about their under-representation, some of them at least are there, and one of the reasons for complaint is the wide range of views they hold and the absence of institutions representing them, despite the fact that in recent months, some of them have created political parties and other civil society groups.

The main current stumbling block is the refusal of the Southern Separatist[2] leaders to participate.  Whether they are playing a ‘chicken’ game is difficult to tell at this point.  With less than a month to go before the beginning of the dialogue conference [due on 15 November], and after a series of internal meetings and rival conferences, these self-styled leaders seem intent on giving priority to their squabbles and petty power struggles over the interests of the people they claim to represent. Their strategy has been to insist on a series of unacceptable preconditions. There are other Southerners on the Preparatory Committee and it is also highly relevant to note that many (possibly the majority of) Southerners do not consider the Separatist movement their representative.

The Dialogue Preparation Committee has taken meaningful initiatives to address the concerns of both Huthis and Southerners.  In late August, it submitted 20 demands to the President.  Eleven of them concern 'the southern issue': this includes the reinstatement of all military and civil personnel suspended as a result of the 1994 civil war [the main demand of the southern movement when it started in 2007], the return of all southern confiscated property and funds,  the return of state lands to the farmers benefiting from the land reform in the south [which they lost immediately after unification when nationalised land was returned to its previous owners or others], the release of all those imprisoned during recent uprisings,  an official apology to the southerners and other points.  A further four concern the Huthi conflict and are similar in nature: an apology, release of prisoners and an end to fighting and collective punishments.  Only 2 points relate to the prisoners and investigation of events related to the 2011 Youth movement.  While all these points were agreed by the President, it is clear that it will take time for their implementation.

Town Council

On 16 October, a ‘Town Council’ meeting was held in Sana’a and televised live.  With representatives of parties and civil society, it was a first opportunity for people to demonstrate their ability to discuss all relevant issues.  Dr Abdul Karim al Iryani, chair of the preparatory committee and Yemen’s most senior politician outlined the work and achievements of the Committee and answered questions. He was followed by a discussion of experiences of other countries including Northern Ireland, and the third had a panel of two representatives of civil society and two from political parties.  Questions were all limited to one minute and included some by SMS and video calls from different parts of the country.  The facilitators successfully managed to ensure that people from all the different parts of Yemen participated and a variety of views were aired; they also enforced their ‘one minute’ rule with sensitivity and tact.  Women and youth were strongly present among participants in person and from afar.  Rural representation was mentioned, an issue usually ignored despite the fact that over 70% of the country’s people are still rural. 

Yemen has a history of failed ‘national dialogues’ controlled by the regime; this has led to some scepticism in the country.  Things are different this time:  the dialogue is specifically mandated to develop a new more democratic political system and is supported by the UN Security Council.  It has emerged from the 2011 uprisings and is characterised by openness and intensity of political debate and a high level of participation of young people including women. The atmosphere is reminiscent of the first two years after unification when an unprecedented level of freedom of expression prevailed, then through the establishment of multiple political parties and newspapers.  Today the mechanisms are You Tube and other mobile phone media, as well as over 10 TV channels.  The other, sadder, reminder of that early period of euphoria is that then it was followed by a series of targeted assassinations against southern leaders which led to the 1994 Civil War, whereas today the targeted assassinations are against military and security personnel loyal to the new regime. The National Dialogue could be the gate to a democratic and well managed Yemen, but the dangers ahead are still enormous.


[1]  The most prominent of these changes were each followed by resistance from those being moved, with their eventual acceptance of the decision thanks to considerable pressure, from internal and external forces.  A few examples: in early April he dismissed Ali Abdullah Saleh’s half brother Mohamed Saleh al Ahmar from his position as head of the airforce and air defence [appointing him advisor to the Minister of Defence]; following on the massacre of young military graduates on 19 May, he removed Abdul Malik al Tayyeb from his position as Commander of Central Security, leaving Yahyia Mohammed Saleh, his deputy, without the cover he previously had,  since then the latter moved to Beirut and has hardly been seen in Yemen.  At the same Time Ammar Mohammed Saleh was also removed from his post in National Security

[2]  A future article will discuss the Southern movement in detail.

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state was published by Saqi books in October, 2017.


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