Yemen Faces Fresh Challenges as National Dialogue Ends

Amidst troubling reports of setbacks in the Arab awakening countries – ongoing militia violence in Libya and repressive measures in Egypt by the military-backed government – Yemen offers an inspiring and hopeful example with the recent completion of its National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

After nearly 10 months of painstaking and contentious deliberation, the official close of Yemen’s National Dialogue on Saturday was a remarkable achievement – not so much for the contents of the final agreement, but for the very fact that the dialogue averted a bloody civil war and brought vehemently opposed political groups around the same table to chart a course for the country’s future direction.

Despite ongoing security problems plaguing the country, Yemenis should be proud that they managed a genuinely inclusive dialogue process with 565 delegates representing established political parties, newly emergent political movements, youth activists, women leaders, and civil society organisations.

The culmination of the National Dialogue was a final report with approximately 1,400 recommendations; now Yemen’s leaders must start the even more difficult process of translating it into meaningful action and incorporating the principles into a new constitution.

Behind schedule

The mandate for the National Dialogue comes as part of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)-backed agreement of November 2011 that brought an end to months of unrelenting demonstrations and violence, and ushered the departure of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for complete immunity.

Backed by the international community, the GCC agreement laid out a two-year framework with a consensus candidate, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, as president; a power-sharing transitional government; a six-month National Dialogue; a new constitution approved by referendum; and national elections.

The two-year mark is fast approaching in February 2014, and Yemen is woefully behind schedule, but it has managed to maintain a relatively peaceful process, wrap up the Dialogue, and is now poised to begin the constitution phase.

While the GCC agreement did avert continued bloodshed, its shortcoming was that it did not address any of the underlying political issues tearing at the fabric of the country.

Although the conflict began with a youth uprising in early 2011 motivated by calls for social and economic justice, much like their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, it was quickly overtaken by a split within the military that divided into violent battles between pro- and anti-regime factions.

When the GCC deal was finally signed, many Yemenis complained that it represented an elite bargain that merely rotated power among a narrow group of insiders, but did nothing to expand access to decision-making or address the original demands of the uprising: ending corruption, providing greater economic opportunity, and instilling more transparent, effective government.

Humanitarian and economic woes

In a sense, the National Dialogue was designed to deal with these real and urgent concerns – but it also became a catch-all mechanism to tackle all the underlying problems facing the country.

The National Dialogue was organised into nine working groups to address issues such as Southern secessionist demands, the northern Saada conflict, transitional justice, decentralisation and federalism, and economic development.

While these were ultimately fruitful discussions, the National Dialogue also had the unfortunate consequence of sucking all the oxygen out of the political space, and very little has been done to ameliorate the dire humanitarian and economic conditions.

President Hadi is widely respected, but his prime minister is a weak figure and his ministers have been more concerned with their political futures than improving the lives of most Yemenis just struggling to survive.

As the poorest country in the Middle East – with more than 40% youth unemployment, 10 million malnourished children, and more than half the population food-insecure – there is little time to waste.

Southern question

On the positive side of the balance sheet, the National Dialogue has achieved some tangible outcomes – agreement was reached to create a decentralised, federal system; reverse the systematic marginalisation that Southern Yemenis suffered since the country’s unification in 1994; abolish early childhood marriage; create a truly independent anti-corruption body; and advance the rights of women including 30% representation in the public office.

The National Dialogue also broke down important social barriers, and delegates emphasised an important cultural shift with conservative Islamist leaders sat in working groups led by women and older tribal sheikhs engaged on equal footing with youth leaders challenging traditional norms.

On the more troubling side, agreement on the most divisive issue – the Southern question – was kicked down the road.

The major parties signed on to the concept of a federal system, but did not decide how the country should be divided and how many regions should be created.

This is not just a technical squabble, as it gets to the very heart of whether there is an eventual path to Southern independence or not.

Even more worrisome is that many Southerners reject the very basis of the GCC agreement and the National Dialogue itself.

In large part, this is because President Hadi and the government have fallen short in generating trust among Southerners (who have been let down repeatedly by the Sanaa-based government) and have been woefully slow in implementing the confidence-building measures that were agreed upon months ago.

Unless serious effort is made to deliver on these commitments, the majority of Southerners may boycott or reject a constitutional referendum, or worse, the country would witness a new wave of violence and unrest in the South.

If the latter, Yemen will face a very unstable and uncertain future.

Yemen has crossed an important threshold with the conclusion of the National Dialogue – and this achievement should be heralded particularly since it is the result of the only negotiated, peaceful transfer of power among the Arab awakening countries.

Yet the next phase – creation of credible state institutions and implementation of the National Dialogue outcomes with buy-in from Southerners – will be even more challenging and will demand equal commitment by Yemen’s people and its international partners to achieve a more stable, prosperous, and democratic future for the country.

Danya Greenfield is the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. She leads the Yemen Policy Initiative and writes extensively on Yemen, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as US assistance to the Arab world. This article was originally published in BBC News, Middle East on January 28, 2014.

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Image: Yemen's President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi receives congratulatory phone call from US President Barack Obama. (Photo: National Dialogue Conference website)