Yemen’s National Dialogue: The Country’s Critical Test for Stability

 Published on Fikra ForumJanuary 17, 2013. 

On November 23, 2011, Yemen’s revolution subsided with an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), enacting a two-year transitional government led by President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi. According to this agreement, a national dialogue is scheduled to take place by the end of February or the beginning of March to decide the formation of the new government and its constitution. However, the transition appears to be dawdling, causing many Yemenis to lose faith. Delays can be attributed to Yemen’s complex ethnic and tribal affiliations and interests, a deteriorating security situation, and Hadi's meticulous oversight, with a careful intent to avoid aggressive backlash and to maintain the nation's stability. Nevertheless, the national dialogue is progressing, the success of which will be critical in determining the future stability of the country.

Planning the National Dialogue

In July 2012, a technical committee was chosen to determine the overall nature and logistics of the dialogue. From August to December 2012, the technical committee, led by Yemen’s former Prime Minister, Dr. Abdulkarim al-Eryani, held 65 meetings, each followed by a press release and updates to the official Facebook page. The committee concluded its meetings with a report that was presented to President Hadi.

As a result of the technical committee’s report, the dialogue will have a total of 565 members. Around 40% of these seats are designated to political parties (not including new parties), while 35 seats are dedicated to Houthis, and 85 to Hirak Southern Separatist Movement members. The political parties must select their delegates according to the following stipulations: 50% of their seats must be assigned to people from the South of Yemen, 30% to women, and 23% to the youth. Furthermore, 160 seats are allocated to non-partisan groups: 40 for independent youth, 40 for independent women, and 80 for civil society organizations (2 members from each organization). Each category will be selected by seven technical committee members. The deadline for non-partisan applications is January 19. Overall, the aim of the committee is to host a dialogue that will be equally divided between Northern and Southern Yemenis.

Complicating matters further, the final list of the national dialogue attendees must include Yemen's tribal leaders, jurists, religious minorities, businessmen and women, young or new political parties, and those with special needs. The selection process for these groups remains unclear, though President Hadi has the right to nominate these individuals or create a special committee that will select them.

The moderator of the dialogue is still undecided, but two options are available. Either the president and the technical committee will appoint a person, or the national dialogue members will recommend individuals and vote. The national dialogue will most likely be held in Sana, however, the technical committee agreed that if security permits, other meetings should be held in Aden. Working teams will also operate in the following cities: Aden, Taizz, al-Mukalla, Sadah, and al-Hudaydah.

The national dialogue budget is 7.7 billion rials, none of which is provided by the Yemeni government. The technical committee’s report concludes that a portion of the budget will provide transportation, housing, and food during the expected dialogue period of six months. Finally, a special television channel and radio will be dedicated to broadcasting all of the national dialogue events. While the money has been pledged to Yemen by GCC countries, it has yet to be received, revealing the GCC’s lack of confidence in Yemen’s decision-making.

What to expect

A recent meeting on January 14 between President Hadi and those involved in the transitional phase (the national dialogue technical committee, political figures, and ten foreign ambassadors) is revealing as to the intricacy of Yemen’s current situation. Though the dialogue is supposedly “national,” international agencies and actors are heavily involved in supervision. The Houthi representative, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, refused to attend the meeting because the U.S. Ambassador was present. This is an indicator of what could happen during the dialogue if international actors attempt to partake rather than observe.

All Yemenis, regardless of their political opinions, must be represented in this dialogue; otherwise, the dialogue will fail and the country will be paralyzed. So far, the Southern Hirak has not released their party list and independent applicants from the South are hesitant to apply, seemingly discouraged to join. Recently, in a first step toward transitional and restorative justice, Hadi assigned two committees to address land disputes and forcible job expulsions that occurred in Yemen’s southern provinces of following the 1994 civil war. If this effort fails, the southerners will continue to feel persecuted and will demand secession.

The deteriorating security condition in Yemen makes it nearly impossible for the national dialogue to operate in various cities. Even in Sana, there are major security concerns. On December 22, 2012, three westerners were kidnapped in the heart of Sana and have yet to be released. Earlier this week, an AQAP cell was discovered in the capital. Aware of these security challenges, the technical committee, now called the preparatory committee, has dedicated a portion of the national dialogue budget toward special security.

Other important issues relating to security remain unanswered. Currently, a committee has been tasked with restructuring Yemen's Ministry of Interior. The goal is to mimic the structure of Jordan's Ministry of Interior, but the transformation will not be easy. In the next month, President Hadi is expected to announce the names of the commanders assigned to the seven armed forces that were newly reformed through his December 19 decree calling for the restructuring of the military. As long as this effort remains unrealized, security will be a constant threat to Yemen's successful transition.

Following President Hadi’s decree, many wonder what will happen to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, former leader of the First Armored Division. Mohsen, though demoted, remains an influential military figure, and may participate as an advisor to the tribal members of the dialogue. Meanwhile, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is still considered the president of the General People’s Congress (GPC) party, though he is sick and needs medical treatment. The national dialogue technical committee did not specify any restrictions against Saleh’s attendance, but if Saleh decides to attend, the majority of participants will withdraw, ruining any real chance of dialogue.

The remaining influential figures worth noting are Hamid al-Ahmar, a businessman and leader of the Islah party, and Abdulkader Hilal, mayor of Sana. Al-Ahmar is a powerful man, with many loyalties among the Salafis, and even jihadis. He will likely attend the dialogue and he might even run for presidency int 2014. Hilal has also been rumored to be a presidential candidate. Like Mohsen and Saleh, he is from Sanhan, and he is a military man. On December 12, 2012, he successfully led a clean up campaign called “Sharik” to fix Sana’s streets, winning him much public acclaim.

The role of the U.S.

The U.S. government’s policy toward Yemen has been primarily concerned with counterterrorism. The American Ambassador in Yemen has been criticized in the past for not listening to the demands of the Yemeni people.  Yet, the ambassador meets with Hadi, Mohsen and al-Ahmar regularly. As previously mentioned, the Houthis are not happy with the presence of the U.S. Ambassador in national meetings. Therefore, during the dialogue, it is best that the international community observes and advises the national dialogue rather than partake in it.

Over the past two years, the increase in drone attacks has led directly to an increase in anti-American sentiment. For the first time in Yemen, the average Yemeni citizen views America as an adversary rather than a friend. However, cooperation between the Yemeni government and the U.S. is at an all-time high. This is mainly due to the fact that the U.S. and the international community are at the backbone of Hadi's strength in Yemen.

The best strategy toward tackling this newfound hostility is to adopt a different policy in Yemen, one that is not solely based on counterterrorism, and to listen to the demands of the Yemeni people. Furthermore, public recognition of the progress toward peaceful transition in Yemen will show support and encourage other non-violent transformations.