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Yemen lurches away from national dialogue with renewed violence

It was a year ago yesterday that Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was formally made president of Yemen in a national referendum. He succeeded the three-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who finally yielded to international pressure to step down amid a popular uprising, and Hadi’s accession was meant to usher in a two-year transition to ...

It was a year ago yesterday that Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was formally made president of Yemen in a national referendum. He succeeded the three-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who finally yielded to international pressure to step down amid a popular uprising, and Hadi’s accession was meant to usher in a two-year transition to a more representative government. Yemeni politicians and U.N. officials have spent much of the past year organizing a National Dialogue, including representatives of many of the country’s overlapping and competing factions, divided along tribal, political, and religious lines, to discuss constitutional reforms and, possibly, a more decentralized government.

But yesterday, three representatives from the country’s restive south withdrew from the National Dialogue committee in protest of continued suppression of the "Hirak," or Southern Movement, which has called for stronger representation for Yemen’s south or secession. Protesters in Aden — which until 1991 was the capital of an independent South Yemeni state — gathered to protest Hadi’s reluctance to address southern grievances. They were met with gunfire from the military, which positioned soldiers on rooftops overlooking the protest (recalling the carnage caused by rooftop snipers just less than two years ago in one of the uprisings catalyzing moments); at least four protesters died (maybe eight now) and 40 more were wounded. On the anniversary of the referendum, Yemen’s halfway revolution appears as stalled now as ever before.

The delays to the National Dialogue were expected — six months before Saleh stepped down, when the transition plan was still a proposal, Chatham House fellow Ginny Hill said,

I see hurdles at every stage. I think it’s going to be a contested process, but it’s going to be a contested process that Yemen needs to go through. And I think it will be good if it’s contested, because in that process — if it can be contained within a genuinely political space, if it doesn’t turn into a violent process — the scope for forging more legitimate political structures potentially lies in this process.

The transition was always going to be messy, but it is increasingly returning to a state of affairs last seen during the uprising’s tensest moments in 2011, a race to find an inclusive agreement before the country unravels.

And it is unraveling. Last week, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution singling out Saleh and his long-exiled southern rival, Ali Salem al-Beidh, as spoilers in the peace process. Last month, a large weapons shipment, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, was intercepted en route to Yemen, possibly from Iran; previous to the captured shipment, rumors of other shipments to insurgents had persisted for months. As news came out of Aden, Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge, tweeted:

 

In the worst days of the popular uprising, secessionist tribal groups carrying the old South Yemeni flag seized a military base in the southern province of Yafai, prompting retaliatory airstrikes. If southern politicians refuse to participate and the National Dialogue collapses, this could well occur again on a much larger scale. Will Picard, head of the Yemen Peace Project, wrote last night about the potential for a renewal of Yemen’s 1994 civil war. "More violence is certain," he concluded. "Little else is."

It was a year ago yesterday that Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi was formally made president of Yemen in a national referendum. He succeeded the three-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who finally yielded to international pressure to step down amid a popular uprising, and Hadi’s accession was meant to usher in a two-year transition to a more representative government. Yemeni politicians and U.N. officials have spent much of the past year organizing a National Dialogue, including representatives of many of the country’s overlapping and competing factions, divided along tribal, political, and religious lines, to discuss constitutional reforms and, possibly, a more decentralized government.

But yesterday, three representatives from the country’s restive south withdrew from the National Dialogue committee in protest of continued suppression of the "Hirak," or Southern Movement, which has called for stronger representation for Yemen’s south or secession. Protesters in Aden — which until 1991 was the capital of an independent South Yemeni state — gathered to protest Hadi’s reluctance to address southern grievances. They were met with gunfire from the military, which positioned soldiers on rooftops overlooking the protest (recalling the carnage caused by rooftop snipers just less than two years ago in one of the uprisings catalyzing moments); at least four protesters died (maybe eight now) and 40 more were wounded. On the anniversary of the referendum, Yemen’s halfway revolution appears as stalled now as ever before.

The delays to the National Dialogue were expected — six months before Saleh stepped down, when the transition plan was still a proposal, Chatham House fellow Ginny Hill said,

I see hurdles at every stage. I think it’s going to be a contested process, but it’s going to be a contested process that Yemen needs to go through. And I think it will be good if it’s contested, because in that process — if it can be contained within a genuinely political space, if it doesn’t turn into a violent process — the scope for forging more legitimate political structures potentially lies in this process.

The transition was always going to be messy, but it is increasingly returning to a state of affairs last seen during the uprising’s tensest moments in 2011, a race to find an inclusive agreement before the country unravels.

And it is unraveling. Last week, the U.N. Security Council issued a resolution singling out Saleh and his long-exiled southern rival, Ali Salem al-Beidh, as spoilers in the peace process. Last month, a large weapons shipment, including shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, was intercepted en route to Yemen, possibly from Iran; previous to the captured shipment, rumors of other shipments to insurgents had persisted for months. As news came out of Aden, Gregory Johnsen, author of The Last Refuge, tweeted:

 

In the worst days of the popular uprising, secessionist tribal groups carrying the old South Yemeni flag seized a military base in the southern province of Yafai, prompting retaliatory airstrikes. If southern politicians refuse to participate and the National Dialogue collapses, this could well occur again on a much larger scale. Will Picard, head of the Yemen Peace Project, wrote last night about the potential for a renewal of Yemen’s 1994 civil war. "More violence is certain," he concluded. "Little else is."

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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