- By Stacey Philbrick Yadav Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an assistant professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a former research fellow at the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.
If there is any consensus on Yemen these days, it is around the assertion that the National Dialogue Conference that commenced Monday must succeed. Of course, what must happen often does not. But the problems with the insistence on the need for success go deeper. The meaning of success is subject to such widely different interpretations, by domestic and international actors alike, that any outcome short of outright anarchy is likely to be heralded by some, while even a seeming breakthrough will be condemned by many.
But the more substantial problem with the claim that the National Dialogue must succeed is that it overlooks features of Yemen’s transitional process that have been broken from the outset, and largely ignores the sustained, reasoned critique that this process has engendered from the beginning. This critique has been expressed not simply by mounting separatism in the southern city of Aden and its peripheries, or even the obvious loss of sovereignty over some parts of the country over the past two years. Indeed, those forms of critique actually fit the prevailing narrative of Yemen as preternaturally divided and ungovernable, a narrative that helped to justify former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule for three decades, as he sold himself to Yemeni and foreign audiences as the least worst alternative to anarchy.
An alternative form of dissent challenges this narrative and the broader patterns of the Yemeni elite’s divisive politics of identity. It is a form of resistance that underwrote the revolutionary movement but is flagging in the face of Yemen’s transitional framework. The media and international diplomacy have primarily focused on the intrigues and high politics of two main groups: civilian political elites and organized groups that wield force. But this focus misses the deeper significance of new revolutionary movements, which have proven that these elites could not alone determine the trajectory of change in Yemen. Indeed, by the eve of the revolution, political elites from the regime and opposition alike had contributed to making formal political institutions largely irrelevant to the lives of most Yemenis. And while insurgent groups in the North and the South were capable of challenging the state, they were no more capable of controlling it than government forces were capable of fully displacing them.
Ultimately, it fell to a popular revolutionary movement to give shape and direction to a call for change that had long emanated from reformists in the formal opposition. Participants in this movement have not only changed Yemeni politics, they have themselves been changed by the process of political mobilization and the experience of collective action. When the international community sanctioned the formal opposition to represent Yemenis in the transitional process, it failed to take full account of the transformations that the revolutionary movement had brought about for so many of its participants. This lies at the heart of the misconceptions underlying the National Dialogue and its limited prospects for true "success."
It is not simply that the transitional process, of which the National Dialogue is a centerpiece, underestimated the importance of the revolutionary movement or overestimated the ability or willingness of existing elites to negotiate a way forward for Yemen. The transitional planners — largely unpracticed in responding to popular mobilization — assumed the same approach to identity that Saleh adopted for so long. They assumed that self-interested actors would stand only for themselves, could only represent a particular set of interests or fixed identity groups, and that they would understand themselves in singular terms. This kind of cardboard political reality can be made by political elites and institutions, but is not inevitably given or destined to remain fixed for eternity. Quite the contrary. As political leaders appeal to, describe, and categorize groups, they help to make them socially, politically, and economically significant. Yemeni identities are being treated as fixed at precisely the moment when they are most radically in flux.
The National Dialogue process has not been entirely oblivious to these new realities. Yemeni elites and their backers at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United Nations did some important work when they created the slate of participants in the National Dialogue. But asking complex individuals with dense networks of relationships to narrow their affiliations runs counter to important other work, done by activists in the revolutionary movement, who have helped to multiply those ties and have encouraged Yemenis to stand with and for people who were different from them. In short, the revolutionary movement was built on and sustained by a form of solidarity that is being profoundly challenged by the National Dialogue.
Over the past year, I have had the chance to talk with dozens of revolutionary activists across the political spectrum, in the context of workshops and training sessions related to the transitional process. These meetings included members of the Southern Movement, the Houthi movement, secular liberals, doctrinal Marxists, and Islamists of a wide range, from different parts of Yemen and from the diaspora. Nearly all of these activists have spoken about the transformative power of collective action. They describe the ways in which working with dissimilar "others" transformed the way in which they viewed themselves, others, and their society. Much of this began in protest squares, in forms of cooperation that that they never anticipated, in providing order, public goods, and basic functions of the state with delimited spaces of popular sovereignty.
Most important in activists’ accounts of their own transformations were everyday practices sustained under conditions that were decidedly abnormal. Many recount being surprised when their own presuppositions were challenged. As one recalled of her time in Sanaa’s Change Square, "One of my fondest memories was a day I had tea at a tea house in the square with four men: an Islahi, an atheist, a secular Socialist, a religious Zaidi, and myself. We laughed a lot, disagreed on politics … there are many unexpected friendships [that started in the square]." This contributed to changing perceptions of ideological others. A female activist noted that her participation "changed my perception of some Islamists, whom I assumed would not accept me as a woman … but that was not the case. Of course, the fact that I, as a woman, stayed late in the square surprised people, but … I felt that our interactions broke many stereotypes of the other." Another major node of reassessment was reflected in a shift from thinking of "the tribes" as corporate units to "tribesmen," as co-participants in the revolution. As one urban activist described, "The assumption I had about tribes being by default an obstacle in front of civic engagement and transition into modernity was proven wrong [in the square]."
These shifting attitudes are often described in terms of friendship. It was common for me to hear activists assert that, "many of my most valuable friendships were actually developed during the revolution and wouldn’t have happened otherwise." But for others, it has instead been described as solidarity — a willingness to stand with others with whom one does not precisely agree. Among those who cite the transformative effect of collective action, there is no effort to efface difference between movement participants. Indeed, the shared commitment to deliberative democracy presupposes difference. But it also presumes that solidarity is possible amid this difference, and that actors may choose to stand for and with those who are different from them.
In other words, what happened in the squares has been understood by many revolutionary activists as more th
an the simple convergence of interest. This points to something else that scholars know about the relationship between identity and interest. Interests are not free-floating things out there. They are tied to identities, by which individual claims are articulated in terms of one’s interests as a member of a particular group; they reference collectivities. So the rethinking of collective identities has implications for the pursuit of interests.
If, by the time the transitional agreement was signed, Yemenis were in the process of seeing themselves differently, imposing a transitional structure that forced people to abandon these newly-formed solidarities in favor of group identities as they were understood by the old regime and outside actors (like tribes, Southerners, women, etc.) was an intervention that should be recognized as such. Seeing the National Dialogue in this light, it becomes easier to understand that resistance to it has not been just about "who gets a seat," but also about what it means to hold such a seat (or not), and in whose name each of the participants might reasonably be expected to speak.
In this regard, the National Dialogue failed well before it began. Its planners asked Yemenis to abandon a newly-forged willingness to stand in solidarity with dissimilar others, in favor of a politics of descriptive representation — to be little more than (categorical) bodies in the room. As one activist has reflected, "the way groups are identified [by National Dialogue planners] puts us in closed boxes and reduces our identity to only one, something that makes me extremely uncomfortable." The National Dialogue — which was originally intended to include even fewer participants — asks people to represent categories in ways that might facilitate mediation, but in its conventional and elite-driven approach to the politics of identity, it fails to take account of the lived experiences of many of the people its delegates claim to represent.
Stacey Philbrick Yadav is assistant professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York and author of the forthcoming Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon (I. B. Tauris, 2013).