If Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference fails, “all Yemenis will lose, not just the ruling elite,” says a leading commentator.
“The real question facing the NDC is: should we be a civil state or an Islamic state?” Dr. Nabil Al-Sarjabi, a political science professor at Hodeida University, tells the Yemen Times.
A civil state is not the same as an Islamic state, he contends, because “there are things in a civil state that are not accepted by religious men.” Asked whether Islamists “will out-muscle” advocates of a civil state, Sarjabi replies:“They are equal. The one who provides a better vision will succeed.’
The dialogue is significant “in part because of the sheer breadth of issues that will be discussed (and that have largely hung in limbo for the last year),” says Erica Gaston, a program officer in the Rule of Law Center at the US Institute for Peace.
“Everything from a transitional justice process to the direction for reforming key institutions is supposed to be decided upon or guided by what the delegates decide,” she notes. “The fundamental political bargain is on the table, including whether Yemen will remain one country or divide into two.”
The day saw many keynote speakers address the mandate and vision for dialogue, including President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi (above, center) and Dr. Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the NDC Secretary General.
The first few days avoided the violence that some had feared, although Houthi delegate Wahid Abu Ras was ambushed on Saturday by attackers reportedly dressed as Republican Guards. His status is unclear but three of his bodyguards were killed. The NDC leadership was quick to condemn this act of violence, but the Houthis pulled their delegation on Sunday for a 24-hour boycott in response to the assassination attempt. The police have arrested the culprits and it seems the assault was a result of a personal dispute unrelated to the NDC. Regardless, the incident will certainly create a chilling effect for the next few days.
Day two saw proceedings shift to the Movenpick Hotel with further addresses by representatives from each of the key delegate entities including independent youth, women and civil society organizations, political parties, Houthis, and southern representatives. On day three, 150 delegates made their five minute addresses to the gathering on such issues as the southern question, Saada (a northern province dominated by the Shia Houthi clan) and the restructuring of the military. As this process wore on, participants saw the commentary blurring. As one Yemeni citizen said, “There is lots of froth to the milk but no one can see how much milk is actually in the cup.”
Public narrative coming out of the first week centered on a few core themes. There was a mocking tone from some citizens who feel that the conference venue is too opulent and does not reflect the people or Yemeni realities. The Movenpick Hotel is easily the most upscale hotel, but organizers selected it for its security advantages and not its image. Also troubling to some was the delegates’ $100 US daily per diem, the equivalent of 21,000 Yemeni Rial or half a month’s wages for the average citizen. Some feel that the per diem is excessive and may shift delegates’ priorities away from the issues and toward personal gain.
On social media, some southern delegates were attacked for participating, and the per diem controversy was used to accuse them of being driven by money and not be trusted to represent the true voices of southerners.
Additional themes from the first week included the re-emergence of the view that the process is led by elites and that the international community is driving the process and seeking quick closure to the proceedings.
The role of youth delegates drove much of the early public commentary which was spiked by the decision of two prominent Islah Party delegates to withdraw and ask that their delegate spots be assigned to new youth participants. This action drew general public support. Youth activists have also called on President Hadi to add more youth representation to the conference. Their demands could be met, as there are rumors that the President Hadi will add another 100 delegates to the NDC, 30 of which would be youth.
But on balance, the majority of public commentary was cautiously positive. President Hadi’s address was seen as solid. Some southerners commented publicly that they felt the process had been respectful. The right of delegates to address the conference is seen as positive first step – delegates feel that the opportunity for initial commentary is necessary and helpful, and has created a solid foundation for the conference. And despite significant organizational challenges, the secretariat tasked with providing logistical support survived the launch without a major crisis.
As the second week of the NDC begins, the assembly will complete the opening comments by delegates, address some procedural matters, conduct delegate orientations and begin establishing the nine working groups which will have primary responsibility for research on, consultation over, and the solution to the development of their assigned issue areas.
The National Democratic Institute will complete delegate orientations for all 565 delegates this week before commencing a series of national dialogue issue forums which will provide enhanced issue analysis for independent delegates. NDI also anticipates providing technical assistance to various conference bodies and supporting the civil society coalition tasked with providing independent monitoring of the conference.
NDI is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group