The Middle East Channel

The ‘Non-Conclusion’ of Yemen’s National Dialogue

Yemen held the closing ceremony of its National Dialogue Conference (NDC) on Saturday, January 25. This followed 10 months of talks among more than 500 delegates from all parts of the country. Delegates met to decide the outcome of Yemen’s political transition after mass protests forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign in November ...


Yemen held the closing ceremony of its National Dialogue Conference (NDC) on Saturday, January 25. This followed 10 months of talks among more than 500 delegates from all parts of the country. Delegates met to decide the outcome of Yemen’s political transition after mass protests forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign in November 2011. While the conference has been hailed a success by its internal leadership and some external financial sponsors, it concludes without firm plans for a future government beyond general ideas of federalized parliamentary rule. As a result, there is good reason to view the NDC’s closing ceremony as a non-conclusion, or at best, only a partial conclusion.

The poor result in the Yemeni capital Sanaa is unsurprising given the large number of problems facing the country over the past two decades, since its national unification in 1990 and first elections in 1993 resulted in a civil war in 1994. Yemenis are the poorest people in the Arab world, enduring severe economic hardship over the past three years, including unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition levels over 50 percent. Yemen has also been experiencing severe environmental crisis, water shortages, and political violence now dividing the country along multiple regional lines. On Saturday, transitional President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told the NDC, "I did not take over a nation. I took over a capital where gunshots are continuous day and night, where roadblocks fill the streets. I took over an empty bank that has no wages and a divided security apparatus and army." 

In order to understand Yemen’s current predicament at the "non-conclusion" of its NDC, it is necessary to grasp three related points. First, unlike Arab states that were surprised by the outbreak of mass street protests in 2011, Yemen had already experienced years of open rebellion prior to 2011. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, the international community warily viewed Yemen as a potential failed state, quite unlike circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, and other "Arab Spring" states. For this reason, when the first waves of dramatic history-making events reached the shores of Yemen in 2011, they arrived not as a potential new beginning, as elsewhere in the Arab world. Instead, they arrived as a potential conclusion to an old set of problems stretching back at least to 1990, or even earlier to the 1960s.

Second, Yemen’s NDC had to wrestle with a set of unresolved conflicts, which had badly weakened the government prior to 2011. These conflicts existed in multiple regions of the country, creating rival authorities to the state. In order to succeed, the NDC needed to attract participants who could legitimately represent all groups in the country. This delayed the start of the NDC for an entire year. The old regime’s strongest and best organized rival, the Houthi movement located north of Sanaa among followers of a martyred Zaidi Shiite leader, agreed to participate from the beginning. However, the Houthis occasionally suspended attendance due to a variety of grievances. Meanwhile, south of Sanaa, the main leaders of Hirak, the southern protest movement, decided to boycott the NDC, while seeking full independence from the north. The NDC managed to recruit a few dozen southerners who presumed to act in the name of Hirak. But this remained the major weakness of the national dialogue. Other regional protest groups east and west of Sanaa were not even considered for admission to the NDC.

Third, after the NDC commenced, participants served on one of nine subcommittees designed to reach consensus on an equal number of future government concerns, including economic development and civil rights. Two subcommittees, state foundations and the southern issue, were arguably more important than others because they would co-determine basic structures of government, which would necessarily influence every other NDC outcome. For example, if settlement of the southern issue led to new state foundations similar to Yemen’s pre-1990 division along north-south lines, then it would alter the range of possible outcomes in the fields of economics and civil rights. This dilemma slowed the work of the entire conference, resulting in still more delays beyond its originally scheduled conclusion in late September 2013. The NDC risked complete failure without consensus on the southern issue. Thus, conference leaders appealed to international donors to fund an extension for an additional four months. Yet even this extension only produced the NDC’s eventual "non-conclusion."

The underlying importance of these three points is obvious — namely, there is a direct line running between them, indicating a fundamental problem from the outset of the NDC due to its failure to include all regional groups in conflict with the regime prior to 2011. This fact is easy to ignore when the NDC is celebrated as a success. Those responsible for organizing it often want to compare favorably the country’s political transition, since 2011, with what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, across the same time period. They claim Yemen’s transition is better because it relied on peaceful dialogue, instead of disputed elections and armed conflict. Yet this mistakenly assumes the moment of transition in Yemen was the same as the other Arab states. And it overlooks that the NDC was less a new start, afforded by an unexpected moment of crisis, than it was an opportunity to conclude an old set of problems, which had generated permanent crisis for years.

To grasp the full implications of the NDC’s "non-conclusion," it is necessary to review what happened after September 2013, when international donors agreed to fund an extension until January 2014. Once donors were on board, a small group of 16 people (called "the 8+8 subcommittee of the southern issue," consisting of eight northerners and eight southerners) was selected to decide the outcome of the southern issue. The chair of this "8+8" subcommittee, Muhammad Ali Ahmed, had headed the southern issue subcommittee as a southern ally of Hadi, who comes from the same southern province. Hadi originally recruited Ahmed to replace the previous head of the southern issue subcommittee, a very influential tribal sheikh who resigned in April 2013 due to grievances about the NDC’s poor representation of southern interests, particularly the interests of Hirak. In the meantime, Ahmed and other southern representatives felt compelled to adopt a strong bargaining position in favor of Hirak’s demand for southern independence.

In the "8+8" subcommittee, Ahmed and his allies continued pushing for a unitary southern region equal in power to northern areas. (Southern lands are wealthier, and more than twice the size of northern lands; yet the northern population is more than four times the southern population). Leading northern members of the "8+8" subcommittee countered with a proposal to form a new federal state consisting of two regions in the south and four regions in the north. Unable to break this impasse, Ahmed and his allies began boycotting the NDC. Eventually Hadi and the conference leadership replaced Ahmed as head of the "8+8" subcommittee, while recruiting yet another new group of southerners who expressed willingness to accept the six-region federal proposal. Nonetheless, the "8+8" subcommittee never made a final recommendation. Instead, it papered over the disagreement by suggesting Hadi form a technical committee to choose between the last two options under consideration: either a federal state of two regions (north and south), or six regions.

It was only by postponing the decision about how many federal regions would exist in the new Yemen that Hadi was able to conduct the closing ceremony of the NDC. Each subcommittee of the national dialogue had been able to complete its work, and file a definitive final report, except the subcommittee on the southern issue. Even the subcommittee on state foundations accepted the idea of Yemen adopting federalism under some form to be determined at a later date. Prior to the NDC’s closing ceremony, Hadi extended his own term as transitional president for one year, in order to appoint and monitor two new committees. One, a committee of technical experts, will choose between a federal state of two or six regions; and the other, a committee of legal experts, will draft a new constitution based on recommendations of the NDC. Once these two committees finish their work, a referendum will be held to seek public approval of the result. And finally, voters will elect a new president.

The timeline to complete all of the above steps is one year, or any time prior to the end of January 2015. This would be a reasonable timeline, if the NDC had concluded with consensus about the country’s future direction. Yet there was never consensus at Yemen’s national dialogue. As a result, it remains an open question whether or not the country can accomplish everything on its agenda for the coming year. There is still a great deal riding on a difficult decision about the number of federal regions, and the inherent trouble of drawing boundary lines between the regions. This is bound to upset more than one constituency in the country. In truth, the outcome of Yemen’s political transition now depends on the decision of a technical committee working under Hadi’s supervision. Hadi has recently been quoted saying "all of Yemen’s problems can be resolved through a federal design" if the number and location of federal regions are determined "with the aim of getting rid of regionalism and sectarianism."

Don’t bet on it. Around the country, there are disgruntled members of various regional groups that did not participate in the NDC. These groups continue to rebel in a variety of ways. This is true in the eastern Hadhramaut province, where a tribal alliance recently launched an armed campaign to liberate its territory; and in the western region of Tihama, where civil disobedience is being used to assert local self-rule for the first time in nearly a century. South of Sanaa, Hirak is mobilizing stronger resistance, while north of Sanaa, sectarian warfare continues to spread, as Houthi supporters expand territory under their control. Meanwhile, inside the capital, remnants of the old regime still exist. They denounce the outcome of the NDC, accusing foreign powers of taking over the country and running it as a trusteeship. They have also resorted to increasingly fiery, religious rhetoric, which will aggravate sectarian tensions. By this time next year, it is hard to predict the shape of the new Yemen because current trends are headed in the opposite direction, away from the future and toward the past. By 2015, political conditions are perhaps as likely to resemble the 1950s, a period of rule by imams and sultans prior to Yemen’s modern revolutions, as the 1980s, preceding national unification of its north and south republics.

Stephen W. Day is an adjunct professor of international affairs at Rollins College in Florida and author of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union (Cambridge University Press, 2012.)

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