Jamal Benomar and the Fine Art of Making Peace in Yemen

Jamal Benomar, the UN special adviser on Yemen who in April started his fourth year on the job, isn’t keen on talking about himself. He “hates” being profiled by the press, a colleague says. He seems far happier talking about the minutiae of the political transition he is overseeing. Yet with the departure of his friend and colleague Lakhdar Brahimi, who stepped down as UN special envoy to Syria at the end of May, Benomar has become the lone survivor of the UN’s Arab Spring diplomatic middlemen. As such, the man and his methods are likely to be subject to growing scrutiny in the coming weeks and months.

UN diplomats have not had much luck in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. But in Yemen, the region’s poorest and most fragile state before 2011, the political transition process set in motion by Benomar in 2011 is moving forward albeit increasingly unsteadily. Could Yemen, and Benomar, be the success story the international community so desperately needs? Or has its peace plan simply delayed the inevitable turmoil?

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon first dispatched Benomar to Yemen in April 2011. His arrival came roughly a month after what is now known as the “Friday of Dignity,” when security forces opened fire on a peaceful demonstration killing an estimated forty-six people. Following the defection of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a onetime enforcer for then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, to the side of antigovernment protestors, the country was inching towards chaos.

Quickly entering the national consciousness as the country’s arbitrator-in-chief Moroccan-born Benomar, a onetime political refugee who now holds British citizenship, aroused interest among anti-government activists. They were surprised to discover that, in his youth, the envoy had been not so different from them. “When I arrived, people Googled my name and a lot of stuff came up,” he says. “I was a student activist. I distributed leaflets; I organized and took part in peaceful demonstrations against the government. We had this dream, that we wanted a different country. More prosperous, more democratic.”

Over three decades after his activism landed him in prison and twenty years since he made his escape to UK, Benomar was watching another movement for change unfold from a very different viewpoint. Working from the executive suite of the upscale Movenpick hotel, perched atop a hill overlooking Sana’a, he shuttled from place to place as fighting in the capital reached fever pitch. Yet rather than call for radical or instant change as he might have done as a younger man he advocated a step-by-step process based on dialogue.

The special adviser honed his attitude towards peacemaking over almost three decades of work, first as an academic, then at the UN. Since joining the international body in 1994, he has worked on some of the world’s thorniest conflicts including Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. While preparing for a series of peace talks in Iraq in 2003, he authored a paper that distilled his thinking on the peacemaking process. He argued that it was important to allow elite groups ousted by internal conflict or external intervention to continue to play a role in national politics and advocated an interim power-sharing agreement between the main parties involved in conflicts as the best way of ensuring short-term stability. He placed a broadly inclusive national dialogue at the heart of any peace process.

Iraq’s national dialogue was a resounding disappointment and few, if any, of Benomar’s recommendations were used during the process. The de-Baathification process, which played a significant part in the country’s current morass, little resembled his thoughts on keeping the elite involved. Ten years later, Benomar was, he says, trying to offer Yemenis a chance to shape the country’s future without causing total social collapse. “[It was] all about addressing the inclusion deficit of the political process,” he explains. But the more immediate task was bringing a spiraling conflict to a halt. “In 2011, it was clear that what you needed was for the two blocs to stop fighting.”

After months of wrangling, Benomar’s efforts seemed to be paying off. By November, he had helped convince Saleh, Yemen’s president of more than three decades, to step down, pulling the country back from the brink of civil war. When Saleh quit, Yemenis joked that the bespectacled UN diplomat with the poker face and owlish frown, should be made an honorary Yemeni for his part in keeping tensions from boiling over. Since then, he has also helped open space for once-marginalized political groups and Yemen’s political transition has won praise from foreign diplomats who had privately believed the odds were stacked against the already unstable country. He was awarded particularly fulsome praise when he helped bring Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference, a 10-month series of peace talks, to a close in January of this year. The ‘Yemen Model’ for peacemaking has subsequently been mooted as solution to a range of conflicts, including Syria’s.

Although they were happy to see the back of Saleh, many Yemenis were underwhelmed by their peace deal, which was based on Benomar’s preferred model of coalition government, national dialogue, and incremental reform. Those who had taken part in the protest movement looked to Egypt and Tunisia—where Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abdedine ben Ali had been pushed out quickly, and preparations for parliamentary and presidential elections were already underway—as models for the “the fall of the regime” that they had demanded. Tawakol Karman, a leading force in the protest movement who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her role in Yemen’s uprising, had demanded in 2011 that Benomar leave the country. The UN representative, she argued, was legitimizing violence against protestors by discussing a deal that would leave elements of the Saleh regime in place and hand the then-president immunity for crimes committed over the course of 2011.

But this perhaps misses the point of what Benomar was trying to achieve. “It’s not helpful when people expect a miracle,” adds Larry Diamond, professor of sociology and political science at Stanford University, who regularly works on negotiated transitions. “The generic goal is to break a political deadlock and facilitate. [An envoy must] facilitate dialogue with the goal of trying to get some kind of agreement that would ensure peace, first of all and then facilitate the emergence of a stable and viable settlement and hopefully one that has a lot of democratic features–even if it’s not perfectly democratic.”

Others are not sure of what, exactly, has been achieved in their country since Saleh stepped down. Plans to hold national elections this February were hopelessly optimistic. Unemployment is incredibly high, the economy is in tatters, security abysmal or absent entirely, and government services hardly extend beyond the capital. In recent weeks, there has been growing anger over a mounting economic crisis that has led to rising shortages of fuel, electricity and water.

Benomar, symbolic for many Yemenis of their country’s internationally-backed political transition, has become a focal point for the frustrations they feel with both the perceived lack of progress and the overt role played by outside powers in national politics since Saleh’s ouster. Even objective observers who are well acquainted with the enigmatic envoy’s way of doing business are not quite sure if his stint in Yemen will seal or tarnish his legacy. “Jamal, in the space of peacemakers, has played it close to the edge where it is in danger of it all coming crashing down,” says David Harland, a former New Zealand diplomat and director of the Geneva-headquartered Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue who has worked closely with Benomar in the past.

Certainly, Benomar has often played a role greater than that of a mere facilitator. He has been given—or has carved out—enough space and power to implement a uniquely personal, and often opaque, brand of mediation. This approach was, for example, at the heart of getting Saleh to sign the Saudi and US-backed transition deal ostensibly brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that brought his three-decade presidency to a close. Attached to the GCC deal signed by Saleh was an ‘implementing mechanism.’ Written and agreed upon by both regime and opposition representatives with Benomar’s input, it laid out a framework for a transitional period of several years, during which the key issues would be addressed and a new constitution written. Benomar, says someone involved in the GCC initiative, “basically tricked” the deal’s sponsors and signatories into endorsing the mechanism. This characterization would not surprise those who know him best. The Moroccan diplomat is “quintessentially political,” says the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue’s Harland. “He is not a simple man who is willing to put all of his cards on the table.”

Benomar’s stamp though is perhaps most noticeable on the country’s national dialogue conference. The talks’ lofty goal of determining the future structure of the state was virtually impossible for delegates to achieve in the proposed six-month timeframe (they eventually overran by four months). Rather than just the same old faces of the Saleh-era elite, the dialogue included northern “Houthi” rebels, southern separatists, youth, women, and civil society organizations. It was in no small part due to the UN envoy that the conference ended with delegates agreeing on, among other things, the creation of a federal state made up of six regions and quotas for women, southerners and other minority groups in government. These decisions, which will inform a new constitution, a draft of which is due by July of this year have made no-one entirely happy.

While completing the national dialogue was a feat in its own right, the alchemy of the kind practiced by Benomar to bring the conference to a close—”manipulation,” say some Yemenis—has unsurprisingly attracted negative attention as well. Some participants complained that Benomar had exceeded his mandate, choosing to become an active political participant rather than acting as an impartial mediator. In September 2013, forty-six delegates at the dialogue talks signed a petition formally condemning the special adviser for telling the UN Security Council that an agreement had been reached to adopt a federal system of government—a move they saw as predetermining the outcome of a still ongoing discussion. Leading members of Islah, the General People’s Congress, the country’s historical ruling party, and Ansar Allah, the group formed to represent the Houthi movement at the talks, complained that Benomar, along with Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi, the man who replaced Saleh as president, had ignored the rules of procedure on consensus in order to make sure some decisions, particularly federalism, were passed. Some dialogue members say that the president and envoy appointed people to key committees who were not representative of the views of their parties and, moreover, pressured them to pass motions on a variety of issues. In response, Benomar points to the fact that delegates at the conference overwhelmingly endorsed a final outcome document which contained all of the disputed items.

Yemen has generally been viewed inside the UN—and by members of the international community—as a much-needed Arab Spring success story and the UN envoy as a rising star. But this fate is by no means assured. In the next year Yemen must draft a new constitution, sketch out a plan to establish a working model for federalism and hold elections, all while the government tries to reverse a deteriorating security situation that many Yemenis fear is, in all but name, creeping toward civil war, just as the government runs out of money. Yemenis are growing increasingly disillusioned by the transition process, and the specter of Saleh’s continued influence looms large. Military leaders are also said to be watching events in Egypt with keen interest, and recent protests over fuel, electricity and water shortages in Sana’a are unlikely to discourage them from thinking that a counterrevolutionary movement in Yemen could succeed.

In the coming year, Benomar will have to work with significantly less political capital than in the past, flagging popularity in Yemen, and limited interest from the members of the UN Security Council, whose attention is more likely to be consumed by events in Ukraine. “This could all fall apart at any moment,” he says. But the fact that the process continues to this day is perhaps its greatest marker of success. All the special envoy can do is keep trying.

Tik Root is a MENA focused freelance journalist who was based in Yemen for over a year. His work has been published with TIME, The Washington Post and Foreign Policy, among other outlets.

Peter Salisbury is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Sana’a, Yemen. He is the former energy editor of MEED, the Middle East Economic Digest, and until October 2013 was a project consultant at UK thinktank Chatham House’s Yemen Forum. His work has appeared in the Economist, Financial Times, and Foreign Policy among others.

Image: Photo: Chatham House