Yemen’s transitional process is unique, not only because it is the “only negotiated, transparent and participatory political transition in the Arab world,” according to Amat Al-Alim Alsoswa, a member of the National Dialogue Conference. But also because of the unusually high proportion of women representatives.
“It remains to be seen if women’s access to and participation in political, economic and civic spheres will improve in the long run,” writes Amina Semlali, a human development specialist for the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region:
Jamal Benomar, United Nations Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Yemen, stressed that in order to make the exchanges meaningful, various factions – political, tribal and regional of both genders – would need to participate. As Yemen’s Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashoor, said: “No-one can marginalize them (the women) now; they are now moving onwards.”
The dialogue is also addressing secessionist pressures, and this week an influential Houthi leader affirmed that he remains committed to the process.
Despite current optimism, large segments of the population remain skeptical, while others strongly reject the process, according to Danya Greenfield, the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Hazim Al-Eryani, a research intern at the Center:
Some have shunned it as political theater, while others argue that the Dialogue will fail to address the major issues. The most important faction, however, are the separatist Herak groups that demand an independent Southern state and do not see the dialogue as an avenue to achieve their goals. The Dialogue preparatory committee made great efforts to include Southern representatives, but as Yemeni analyst Fatima Abo Alasrar notes, “[it was unable] to capture the essence of the street in its selection. The dichotomy between the street movement, which is calling for secession, and the National Dialogue, which is contemplating federalism, should be worrying.”
“This growing disconnect risks derailing the entire process, and worse, could spark the eruption of significant and widespread violence as the central government continues its heavy-handed tactics to suppress dissent in the South,” Greenfield and Eryani caution.
Among the delegates participating in the dialogue sits Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman, a leading civil society activist who helped spark the 2011 massive protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Karman began her career as an activist around 2005, writes Jeffrey Gedmin, President and CEO of the Legatum Institute:
“I learned at home growing up,” she tells me, “you don’t wait for solutions, you go out and find them.”
As chair of the group Women Journalists Without Chains [supported by the National Endowment for Democracy], she fought routinely to get dissidents out of prison — that is, when the mother of three wasn’t in jail herself. In 2006 Karman started an SMS campaign that reached 200,000 people across the country.
Karman (left) is a journalist, an advocate of human rights (a labor of love shared by her husband), and a visionary. She states repeatedly in interviews that she wants democracy, rule of law, and western-style human rights for Yemen. Is she realistic about the future? As she described her goals for the planet in her Nobel acceptance speech, she asked at one point, “Am I dreaming?” (Imagination seems to run in the family; her brother Tariq is a poet.)
“To fully understand the significance of the role of women and the challenges that they had to overcome, it is necessary to understand what it means to be born a woman in Yemen,” writes World Bank analyst Semlali:
Female illiteracy runs at 70 percent, double the rate of men. Due either to a poor health system or a lack of services, an average of eight women die prematurely every day. There is no minimum legal age for marriage - when girls as young as 10 are married off, their young bodies are often not able to handle the birth process soon thereafter. They perish. Women raise children, cook, clean, tend the land and livestock - yet only seven percent earn a wage. In a country where almost every step a woman takes is circumscribed by rules and restrictions, the revolution created a unique opportunity to address Yemen’s gender gap – one of the main drivers of the country’s enduring underdevelopment.
“During the revolution, secularist and Islamist women alike spoke in a determined voice showing that the fight for their rights was not just for the sake of it. Rather, they engaged as citizens for the long-term good of their country as a whole,” she notes. “And there are plenty of socio-economic arguments to back up their demands for female civic, political and economic inclusion, one of them being that a country’s productivity can drastically increase as gender equality increases, according to the World Development Report on Gender 2012.”
But Hariri center analysts Greenfield and Eryani express the concern that “in addition to secessionist sentiment and lack of genuine popular support among Southerners, there is another structural dilemma” with the process:
The transitional phase rests on the success of the Dialogue, yet the framework requires progress on two parallel processes: a dialogue that is aimed at building the foundation of a new state, and a state-restructuring process that is led by a weak and ineffective state. For the former to succeed, the state must build the necessary foundation and provide political backing for dialogue decisions to be absorbed by official institutions and accepted by the public. For the latter to succeed, the Dialogue must set the course for state restructuring and renegotiate the relationship between state and citizen. Thus, Yemen faces a Catch-22 where the Dialogue requires the support of a currently weak state to succeed. State capacity has become both a precondition for and a measurement of success.
“Both of these structural issues could be at least partially mitigated if the right steps are taken at the right time,” they contend:
For the South, President Abdrabo Mansour Hadi needs to immediately implement as many of the eleven points recommended by the Southern working group. Hadi did establish two committees to deal with issues of confiscated lands and dismissed servicemen and civil servants, and while some progress has been made, expedited implementation will be an important signal. This would go a long way in demonstrating a real commitment—and not just lip service—to address the legitimate grievances of Southerners. It is confounding why so little has been done on this front in the fourteen months since Hadi’s election—when so much rides on the Dialogue’s success—and why the security services continue to exacerbate an already delicate situation.
As for redefining the state-citizen relationship, significantly more engagement should be made with the general population about the Dialogue’s aims and how ordinary Yemenis can contribute to what should be a national reconciliation and rebuilding process not only limited to five hundred sixty-five people.
Check out Yemen updates with the invaluable CIPE Yemen Digest here.