Is Dialogue Yemen’s Last Resort?

Thursday, March 7, 2013, Originally published on Fikra Forum

After numerous setbacks, the Yemeni National Dialogue is finally set to commence on Monday, March 18, though there are many obstacles that remain unsettled. The final list of dialogue participants has not yet been finalized, with several parties disputing their own member selections. More importantly, leaders of the Southern Hirak (a term encompassing the many groups that comprise the Southern separatist movement) still refuse to participate even though the dialogue’s technical committee dedicated a reasonable number of seats for them. Amid declarations, statements, and political maneuvering from all sides, the chances of having an authentic deliberation seem far-fetched.

Regardless of the troubled reality on the ground, the international community continues to press onward, despite the evident flaws in the selection process of youth, independents, women, and civil society, particularly from the South. Since 2009, the Yemeni government has failed to address the frustrations of the Southern Hirak movement, negligence that has continued after Yemen’s 2011 revolution when President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s took office. In fact, political tensions have worsened after violence erupted on February 21 in Aden between Southern Hirak members and government authorities.

President Hadi’s first meeting with the movement’s leaders came on February 23, 2013, more than a year after he assumed the presidency and only after the death of four Southern protestors. To make matters worse, the technical committee, tasked with establishing the selection process for national dialogue participants, failed to successfully communicate the process and stipulations with the Hirak’s leaders, resulting in distrust in the credibility of negotiations.

Moreover, when the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) visited Yemen on January 27, massive demonstrations swept the Southern city of Aden, only to be disregarded. Following this visit, the UNSC issued a warning on February 16 to those accused of obstructing Yemen’s National Dialogue process, specifically naming former president Ali Saleh and former vice president Ali al-Beidh (1990-1994) without raising concerns about the dialogue’s political process or the Southern movement. In turn, the Supreme Council of Southern Hirak issued a statement calling the UNSC’s announcement “disappointing” for the Southern people, who expected the international body to acknowledge the Southern cause and to support their right to self-determination. Such negligence exacerbated ongoing tensions between the Yemeni government and the Hirak, further complicating negotiations between them.

The policy of turning a blind eye to Southern grievances has proved ineffective and detrimental, yet many within Hadi’s government continue to do so. For example, on March 3, Yemen’s minister of defense, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, stated that Yemen’s unity is “firmly entrenched.” Such statements are counterproductive and unhelpful, and result in a hardening of positions on both sides of the dialogue. For instance, over the past week, several prominent Southern leaders issued statements declaring that Southerners who participate in the National Dialogue are betraying the Southern cause. They even warned that it is a continuation of the “Northern conspiracy” against the South.

Although divisions in Yemen are serious and troubling, the dialogue is nonetheless moving forward and success remains a possibility. The six members of the technical committee who suspended their membership in response to the violence in Aden on February 21are returning to the process. Among these members is Yassin Saeed Noman, the general secretary of Yemen’s Socialist Party, who announced on March 3 that the dialogue must continue even if “part of the southern movement participates, in order to prevent the halt of the political process.” The rest of the party’s members are likely to follow suit.

Yet, troubling signs remain. On March 1, the Youth’s Preparatory Committee for the National Conference announced its disbandment, signaling their disillusionment with the process. Further complicating matters, the vast majority of key players are entering the negotiations with a predetermined set of objectives, making it harder to reach a middle ground. For example, while President Hadi was in Aden, he announced that he expects Yemen to have five regions (in addition to the Port of Aden), despite the fact that a main purpose of the dialogue is to determine the structure of the Yemeni government. As the mediator of the dialogue, this position is extremely problematic, and more importantly, according to an unofficial source, it signals his adoption of the prominent Islah Party’s vision.

Preparations for the dialogue have centered on politics, dominating planning discussions and shaping its selection process. These discussions ignored crucial topics like the economy, the role of tribes, educational reform, and the effects of climate change. So far, international actors in the dialogue process have proved to be equally as important, if not more important, than the national actors. While the international community’s “democracy agenda” is an admirable goal, if expedited and not undertaken on the national level by the Yemeni people, it will prove detrimental. In an environment where people are unwilling to even enter into dialogue, it will undoubtedly take years for the principles of democracy to take hold.

Yemen has never had a dialogue that has encompassed this many factions, and it would be unwise to assume that inclusiveness guarantees success. Dialogues have been part of Yemen’s political history for years, with questionable results. In the North, the Harath Agreement between the monarchists and the republicans ended with war. In the South, negotiations among members of Yemen’s Socialist Party were signed in October 1985, only to see violence erupt in January 1986. At the unification of Yemen in 1990, the country signed Al-’Ahd Treaty between Ali al-Beidh and Ali Saleh, only to function as a backdrop for the 1994 Civil War.

If Yemen’s history has taught us anything, it is that dialogues are a last resort; they function primarily on a symbolic level. In fact, dialogues have almost been precursors for disasters to come, especially if the product of the dialogue upsets a faction of the participants. The dialogue will essentially continue for lack of a better plan. In pushing for dialogue, Yemen and its international allies did not anticipate alternative scenarios in the case of the dialogue’s potential failure.

This Yemeni experience does not mean that the current dialogue is doomed; it means that a lot more effort is required and powerful players must be willing to make painful concessions. Rather than gratifying the international community on a superficial level, real democratic foundations must take root among the national actors for the sake of the Yemeni people. Those who are invested in peace understand that Yemen has no choice but to move forward for the success of the dialogue. With the dialogue starting on March 18, time is limited. President Hadi and his government must do more to ease tensions with the Southern Hirak and the youth in order to enable the best possible environment for negotiations to occur. As dialogue participants come to the table, they must be aware of what is at stake: should the dialogue fail, Yemen will have no way out.