More than 500 representatives of Yemen’s political parties and civil society today started a UN-backed dialogue for reconciliation with the aim of drafting a fresh constitution and preparing for free and fair elections in February 2014.
But the talks are being boycotted by southern separatists and by the country’s best-known civil society activist.
“We are here by the thousands to reject the dialogue as it is an issue of northerners and those southerners who are involved in it do not represent the people,” activist Khaled Junaidi, told the AFP news agency.
Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman (above) is also boycotting the talks in protest at the presence of officials loyal to ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh during his 33-year rule.
“I will not participate in the dialogue, due to the obvious imbalance in the representation of the youths, women and civil society groups and the participation of people who have the blood of the revolution youth on their hands,” she told AFP.
“This was not the dialogue we had called for. We will work outside the dialogue to press the transitional government and president to achieve our demands including the reunification of the army, the release of detainees, and a probe into the crackdown” on anti-Saleh protesters in 2011.
While some civil society groups will join the dialogue to address challenges to a genuinely inclusive transition, others share Karman’s concern that Saleh loyalists may sabotage the process, said Mohamed Mikhlafi, the Minister of Legal Affairs.
“Saleh’s supporters are organized in militant groups that considerably influence the flow of events in Yemen, and they insist that he should stay in the country even after the uprising,” he said.
The former president will also attend the sessions and his presence typifies the obstacles to reforming state institutions, especially the security apparatus, a precondition for addressing the southern insurgency.
“The presence of Saleh stops prospects of transformation and restructuring of the military and police bodies themselves,” Mikhlafi said. “The trouble caused by Saleh’s loyalists within all state institutions leaves us no time to map out a clear roadmap for other severely-deteriorating matters, and the southern crisis in one of those.”
While the country’s politicians have been dragging their feet over the transition, Yemeni civil society has grown increasingly vibrant, says Gabool Al-Mutawakel, co-founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation, and a former a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
But “after countless conversations in Sanaa over the past week” about the dialogue, analyst Danya Greenfield identifies “some worrisome dynamics that should be noted in order to increase its chances for success,” writing in Foreign Policy:
- There is a perception that the National Dialogue is being driven by an international agenda, particularly in the way it was constructed (not including tribal representatives and religious authorities), the allocation of representation (decision made by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar) and some of the topics proposed for discussion (good governance, the environment, and child marriage). Among Yemenis sensitive to interference by outside powers, this is a particularly salient issue. ……Finding the appropriate balance will require a nuanced approach on the part of the United Nations, World Bank, Europeans, United States, and other supportive parties.
- Many Yemenis express concern that the National Dialogue is merely an exercise among political and social elites, established families, and power brokers that is largely being followed by people in Sanaa, but not the rest of the country. In a nationwide survey conducted by an international firm in January, 52 percent of respondents across the country had not heard of the National Dialogue. When asked what President Hadi’s priority should be, 40 percent answered corruption, 38 percent answered the economy, and only 7 percent answered the National Dialogue. …….
- The allocation of seats is heavily tilted toward political parties and existing elites who will likely dominate the dialogue. Although a percentage of seats were allocated for independent figures, the parties ended up playing a large role in the selection of those delegates as well. While creating strong political parties is generally an objective for a healthy, well-functioning democratic system, in this case, with many entrenched interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo, it risks leading to the marginalization of women, youth, and non-affiliated independent delegates. Ensuring that these voices are not drowned out by stronger and better organized political party representatives will be essential for the success of the dialogue …….
- Some expect that the key decisions will be made outside the margins of the dialogue among Yemen’s primary power brokers and that all this dialogue activity is just for show. The question is whether the dialogue will actually be a meaningful forum to resolve the most divisive issues, or just a sideshow to pacify the international community and revolutionary activists clamoring for change. This will depend largely on the previous two factors and to what degree Hadi provides leadership to open space for genuine discussion and debate that leads to decision-making processes inside the dialogue structure.
“Yemen is no stranger to national dialogues, and many Yemenis will boast that there is a tradition and culture of dialogue and consensus-building not present in other Arab countries facing similar challenges,” writes Greenfield, the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council:
That may be true, but the list of issues to address would be a heavy load for any country — let alone one that is divided by deep political and economic cleavages, wracked with poverty and unemployment, and struggling to maintain security with separatist violence and extremism in various forms. Despite the obvious obstacles ahead, there is great opportunity in this moment. And hopefully next March 18 will be the anniversary of an important milestone in Yemen’s democratic process.
For further background, check out the invaluable Yemen Digest, an initiative of the Center for International Private Enterprise, one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group