Yemen’s Final Stretch

“No one wants a real state,” Dr. Mohammed al-Mutawakel intoned, gathering attention from around the table where his family gathered for lunch on the Eid holiday. The former opposition party leader and elder statesman explained why Yemen has reached a point of crisis that might lead to the failure of the National Dialogue intended to resolve the country’s most critical problems: “Each political actor is only looking out for his own interests; none is working to establish a functioning, civil, democratic state for the people.” It was hard to argue with this most fundamental point, and nearly everyone I spoke with in my three-day visit to Sanaa agreed that as the dialogue reaches its final stage, the traditional power centers are closing ranks and using every trick in the bag to scuttle its potential success. 

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored agreement that averted civil war in Yemen and prompted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down from power in exchange for immunity in November 2011 set forth a carefully scripted process for Yemen’s transition: a one-candidate presidential election, formation of a national unity government, a sixth-month national dialogue, constitution-drafting and referendum, development of a new electoral law, and then national elections. The National Dialogue has exceeded its initial six-month mandate, but the 565 delegates representing the primary political parties, Southerners, Houthi movement, civil society, youth, and women have done an admirable job hashing out the most important issues facing the country through nine working groups. After months of deliberations that generated a relatively positive climate of exchange, the workings groups just reached the stage of proposing solutions two months ago, and this is why the process is now breaking down. According to Dr. Badr Basalmah, a National Dialogue delegate representing the Southern Hirak movement, “the real decision-makers are outside the dialogue, and they are not looking for solutions — they want to hold on to their power and assets. Now that the dialogue has moved into the details, they have realized the dangers of change, and so they are resisting it with full force.” 

At its core, the dialogue presented an opportunity for non-traditional actors, new political forces, and marginalized communities to weigh in on the future of the country — and this is an achievement worth saluting, particularly when compared with the divisive and violent outcomes from power struggles in Egypt and Libya. And yet, the past two weeks have reminded observers that the power brokers who predated Yemen’s youth-led uprising are the ones who will likely dictate how this story evolves. The fact that Yemen’s political transition process produced no clear winners or losers is both a blessing and a curse. The current president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was selected in February 2012 as a consensus candidate among the signatories to the GCC deal, and he formed a unity government with somewhat balanced representation of the major political parties. The much-lauded “Yemen model” has enabled the country to avoid civil war up to this point, but also perpetuated control by the same elite circles over the political, security, and economic life of the country.

Another major critique of the GCC agreement and the National Dialogue process it dictated is that most of the issues discussed — particularly the ones consuming the most time and attention among the political elite and the international community — have nothing to do with the grievances that drove thousands of Yemenis into the streets to protest for months in the spring of 2011. The rallying cries focused on the lack of economic opportunity, unemployment, high cost of living, corruption and nepotism, weak rule of law, and the abuse of power embodied by the Saleh regime. Universally, the Yemenis I met stressed that nothing has been done to address these issues in this two-year transition period — in part due to the complete ineffectiveness of the current government — and they are skeptical that the National Dialogue would have any impact either. In fact, many of these conditions have actually deteriorated with service delivery, electricity cuts, and fuel shortages worse than the pre-2011 situation.

That is not to suggest that positive outcomes have not emerged from the deliberations of the National Dialogue. Several of the less politicized working groups completed their work on time and proposed items to establish the basis for a civil state that respects human rights, strengthens judicial independence, advances the participation of women in government, and provides universal education and health care. The very important state-building working group has yet to issue its final report, but delegates note it has come to agreement on the state structure (presidential vs. parliamentary), an electoral system, and guidelines for the constitution-drafting process. 

The most important issue to be decided by the dialogue — and the one that might get at the root of many of Yemen’s problems — is the question of devolving power away from Sanaa to regional and local authorities, either through further decentralization or development of a multi-state federal system. While the focus of this debate has centered on resolving the two most contentious issues — grievances in the South and the Saada region — it also goes to the heart of Yemen’s most critical problem: the centralization of power and capture of resources. At the core of nearly all Yemen’s concerns is the lack of effective state structures, good governance, and accountability for those in power. Shifting authorities away from Sanaa would bring governance and decision-making closer to the people and could create more effective mechanisms for service delivery, infrastructure development, economic activity, and enhanced security.  

Although the two primary political parties — the former ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islah — have publicly accepted the idea of devolving power and a potential federal arrangement, many Yemenis believe their leaders are working behind the scenes to sink the idea, most notably former President Saleh (still the head of the GPC party), and Ali Mohsen (key Islah leader, former commander of the First Armored Brigade, and close ally of Hadi). Although Islah and the GPC are political adversaries and have significant ideological differences, on this question, their interests are fairly aligned. The two parties and their cohort of elite leaders have everything to lose by diffusing power away from the capital to the periphery, and everything to gain by sustaining the status quo — particularly as it relates to economic privileges and access. With economic activity and decisions about contracts, oil and gas deals, and internationally-financed projects emanating from Sanaa, it is far easier to control and capture economic benefits. This is why, as the National Dialogue neared agreement on a federal system with three tiers of local and regional authority, the old regime powers are now fiercely resisting. A member of the dialogue’s presidium put it simply: “The traditional powers want to pass through this period with the least amount of change — then come back even stronger later and reassert control.”

The issue of the South is enormously complicated, but at its root are historic grievances stemming from an ongoing struggle between unity and independence, culminating in the 1994 civil war and unification that systematically disadvantaged Southerners, including the forced retirement of military personnel and civil servants, land confiscation by Northerners, and marginalization in the political and economic life of the country. In 2007, the Hirak movement emerged in the south to agitate for greater rights, and when protests emerged in the spring of 2011 to oust Saleh from power, many Hirak supporters joined the popular uprising in cities throughout the country. Since that time, however, frustration with the Sanaa-based government has increased and the desire of Southerners to secede from the country has risen dramatically. Despite that Hadi hails from the Southern province of Abyan, he and his government have not demonstrated to the Southerners that engaging in the transition process and the National Dialogue will serve their interests and have failed to generate the necessary confidence and trust to win their support.

The preparatory committee and the Southern Working Group in the National Dialogue outlined a set of specific recommendations (referred to as the 20 + 11 points) aimed at generating confidence and encouraging Southern participation in the dialogue. Yet, the government has been enormously slow in implementing these recommendations, and the two committees established to redress unfairly dismissed military personnel and confiscated lands in the South have delivered few concrete results to date. If such measures had taken root over the past 12 months, perhaps Yemenis in the South would see some reason to remain in a unified country. At present, large segments of the population in the South reject the very basis of the GCC agreement, the National Dialogue, and any imposed solution by Sanaa. Some Yemenis believe that Hadi does not actually want to bring the Southerners along yet — rather, he is holding out this card for the final act. This could prove to be a dangerous gamble. Anyone who doubts the seriousness of this opposition should watch footage from a recent demonstration in the Hirak stronghold of Aden on October 12 that brought thousands to the street against unity and the outcomes of the dialogue.

The tension is not limited to the South. Yemenis across the political spectrum feel that the situation has deteriorated over the past few months: kidnappings and assassinations throughout the country are on the rise, electricity cuts are more frequent, and the lines at petrol stations are hours long. There is a palpable sense of tension in Sanaa as everyone waits for the final outcome. The security breakdown and attacks on pipelines and electricity grids are attributed to one of two causes: either the old regime forces are working to undermine the success of the dialogue, or the competition among security forces aligned with Hadi, Saleh, and Mohsen has created a security vacuum filled by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula  (AQAP) or other jihadi insurgents. Either way, the security issues are critical, and most believe they could only be resolved by a political agreement that aligns the interest of these key players.

Finding a solution that achieves some semblance of consensus on the South, while protecting the core interests of the old regime elites, will not be an easy task. Ahmed Bin Mubarak, the secretary general of the National Dialogue, lamented that the “8+8 committee” (appointed specifically to resolve the Southern question) was just on the cusp of agreement last week when the Hirak members started to feel more pressure from the Southern street, and when the status-quo political parties (GPC and Islah) pulled back and returned to the idea of decentralization. The dialogue is primarily stuck on the Southern question, but the last plenary session also collapsed due to the withdrawal of the GPC members over a proposed political isolation clause that would prevent Saleh and many of GPC party leaders from participating in politics in the future.

How will the dialogue conclude and what will happen next? The number of opinions matches the number of people asked. It is a fluid and dynamic process that few can predict. At the same time, the political fight is between the old regime — divided among party, tribal, and ideological lines — and new powers that were legitimized through the National Dialogue, such as the Houthi movement from the northern Saada region and the Hirak movement. In a country where none of the old or new political powers trust each other, a zero-sum attitude prevails as does a strong incentive to obtain and hold as much power as possible. 

While only Yemenis can determine how this will be resolved, the international community plays a significant role and how it engages at this stage in this process should be carefully considered. For better or worse, the positions taken by the G10 group in Sanaa (comprised of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the EU, and the GCC states) carry great weight — and with this carries great responsibility to consider what is best for Yemen at this moment in time, not just what was put down on paper two years ago in the GCC agreement. U.N. Envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar has played a critical role in keeping the process moving forward, but now is a moment to pause, reevaluate, and think creatively about what the next phase of the transition should look like.

First, many in the international community under-emphasize or under-value the extent of anger in the South and how this impacts the next steps in the GCC agreement. Many diplomats and donors will acknowledge pressure in the South as the major issue at hand, but then seamlessly move to discussion of the constitution and elections as though Southern discontent will somehow resolve itself without impinging on the rest of the process. Even if a federal system is agreed upon in the dialogue, the Southern street may reject that outcome, leaving a deeply divided population with limited avenues for recourse. Given present circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine a situation in which the majority of Southerners boycott a constitutional referendum, reject the constitution, refuse to register as part of the new voter registry, or massively reject Hadi (or any candidate) if he chooses to run in upcoming elections. This is not to mention the potential for massive protests at each of these stages that could turn violent. This would be a catastrophic rejection of the GCC initiative and the National Dialogue process. The international community should press Hadi and his government to leverage its influence to prompt aggressive implementation of the 20 + 11 recommendations and to initiate diplomatic overtures at all levels to Southern leadership.

Second, the GCC agreement mandated a two-year transition phase that everyone in Sanaa now acknowledges was an unreasonably aggressive timeframe. Clearly there will not be a constitutional referendum or elections by February 2014 when the period should end. Rather than sanctioning piecemeal extensions or delays to rush to the constitutional referendum followed by elections, the G10 and the United Nations should work with Hadi and the National Dialogue leadership to develop a timeframe and sequencing that make sense at this point and allow enough time to do it right. Assuming the NDC agrees on a mixed system of government, serious questions should be asked about when presidential and parliamentary elections should be held — not only from the vantage point of technical capacity and readiness of the Supreme Committee for Elections and Referenda, local election committees, and the new voter registry — but also taking into consideration political readiness and potential fallout. Instead of feeling beholden to the GCC agreement, this is a moment to take a step back and set forth a new roadmap that provides clarity for the next two to three years. This should include a clear mechanism for how the outcomes of the National Dialogue will be translated not only into the constitution, but also into executive and legislative action, and establishing a body to oversee that process and ensure accountability. Additionally, the dialogue should not conclude without a clear roadmap and timeline that details how the decisions made by the dialogue will be communicated to the public, and allows sufficient time for public outreach, a consultative process of constitution-drafting and development of a new electoral law.

Rushing the process could potentially undermine the positive gains that have been made by setting in motion a situation in which the majority of Southerners reject the outcome or refuse to participate. At the same time, there is a delicate balance between not rushing the process and giving license to continual delays and postponement. Yemenis almost take pride in their reputation of endless delaying and then last minute negotiations at the 11th hour before a deadline. Finding the right balance is not an easy task, but that is why clearly defining a new framework and timeline — sooner rather than later — is so essential. These discussions are now underway among the Yemeni powers-that-be, but mostly behind closed doors, and this is what generates fear and distrust among other political actors outside this process and the public. Again, this is where the international community can play a useful role by formalizing the process and demonstrating the willingness to rethink the wisdom of the initial GCC-mandated plan. Ultimately, international players are motivated primarily by an interest in preserving Yemen’s security and stability, but rushing to the finish line does not achieve this in any sustainable way, and doing so may undermine the delicate gains made to date.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This article was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel.

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