As Yemen’s key political actors gear up for the forthcoming dialogue, envisaged as the first step towards a democratic transition, Les Campbell, Middle East director for the National Democratic Institute, finds a surprising degree of consensus. But former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (right) remains a “fly in the ointment” that could yet disrupt the fragile truce between rival factions.
An important hurdle in the lead-up to Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference was passed on Wednesday as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) – which had missed the first deadline – submitted the names of their delegates for the gathering which is slated to begin on March 18.
The National Dialogue is an integral part of the Gulf Cooperation Council Agreement signed in late 2011 which saw the departure from office of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the creation of a government of national unity including the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and opposition JMP. Part of a larger comprehensive dialogue program that will include a series of working groups and committees, 565 delegates will convene in Sana’a to begin discussion on topics including decentralization, election systems, forms of government, resolution of regional grievances in the north and south, restructuring of the security services and armed forces, economic development and a host of other issues.
Still to come are the names of delegates representing the Southern Movement or Hirak, although officials of the Technical Committee for National Dialogue (TCND) remain confident that there will be significant southern representation. The Houthis – another key constituency in the dialogue process – have submitted their participants and reconfirmed that they will join the gathering. The Houthi clan, adherents of a form of Shi’a Islam, exerts control over parts of northern Yemen and have been involved in a number of limited wars with the Sana’a-based government.
While there are sure to be last minute jitters, and political drama will likely surge prior to the start of the long anticipated summit, Yemen is currently enjoying an uncommon state of political harmony.
Meetings in Sana’a over the past few days with officials of the former ruling party, opposition leaders, tribal sheikhs, youth activists and government ministers found a surprising state of consensus – national dialogue is the only solution to Yemen’s deep-rooted fissures and fault lines, most say, and security and economic prosperity will come only when compromise becomes preferable to conflict.
The fly in the ointment is former President Saleh who continues to hold court with supporters and issue pronouncements through the media outlets controlled by his son, Ali Ahmed. While not overtly disruptive, his presence is a provocation that, over time, could threaten to derail the fragile political truce currently holding sway.
Even his defenders have come to believe that he must withdraw completely from politics – if not leave the country. Saleh retains the chairmanship of the GPC – an inconvenient and somewhat embarrassing fact for current President Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi (left) whose picture is featured in GPC posters alongside that of Saleh. The not-so-subtle message is that Saleh remains the senior to his former Vice President. While it pains them, Saleh’s opponents outside the GPC are trying to mute criticism of the former president in the hopes that he will fade away and not dig in just to spite his enemies. Moderates within the GPC hope the same as many are anxious to rebuild the GPC as a modern party of pragmatic technocrats and to shed the Saleh albatross.
Saleh distraction aside, Hadi continues to enjoy political approval ratings any politician would envy. Hadi’s personal prestige and credibility help maintain hope among Yemeni citizens that their security and economic concerns will soon be addressed – even in the face of limited progress. While many wish Hadi could inherit some of Saleh’s charisma and develop stronger networks of support, his solid performance has won respect.
A significant challenge for Hadi lies in managing expectations on the pace and scope of change. While he has been able to restore some basic services to tolerable levels, many Yemenis are waiting for wholesale military re-structuring and movement on key grievances of the south related to land ownership and lost jobs following the 1994 civil war. These issues are among the core recommendations issued last August by the TCND, which called at the time for immediate action in an effort to promote participation in the dialogue process.
The TCND’s sense of urgency on these matters may fail to acknowledge the complexities of the issues. President Hadi has initiated action on military reform and southern grievances, but has not secured closure on any. A National Democratic Institute meeting with President Hadi on Wednesday shed some light on his strategy. For him to act conclusively now on any one dialogue item could be seen as preempting the mandate of the delegates and discourage citizens from contributing to the debate.
The model for dialogue is respectful consultation, citizen engagement and the development of shared solutions. Unilateral action, according to Hadi, could ruin the opportunity for consensus policies which are likely more sustainable over the long run than presidential decrees.
Perhaps Hadi will be proven right and his sentiments are certainly laudable but, in the meantime, lack of tangible change may give the former president a soapbox and could threaten the rare political timeout currently in place in Yemen’s capital.
“A year after President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in a deal brokered by the United States and Yemen’s Arab neighbors, the country’s three most influential families continue to cast a large shadow over the political transition,” The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan reports:
Unlike leaders of other nations altered by the Arab Spring revolutions, Yemen’s elites were neither jailed nor exiled, and they have remained inside the country, free to operate as they will.
Women Journalists Without Chains is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. NDI is one of the NED’s core institutes.