Among the urban elite and diplomatic community in Sanaa, all eyes will turn to the launch of the long-awaited National Dialogue Conference today, a key component of the transition plan agreed upon in November 2011 that ushered out former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in exchange for full immunity. The good news about the internationally-backed agreement is that Saleh was finally forced from the presidency after more than 30 years of autocratic rule and the fighting stopped. The bad news is that it did not address any of the underlying issues that have plagued Yemen since before the uprising and have only been exacerbated in the time since. The National Dialogue, thus, is positioned to tackle the thorniest issues including calls for Southern independence, the restive Houthi movement in the north, the question of federalism and decentralization, constitutional reform, empowering women and youth, and other issues.

The National Dialogue itself has been controversial, plagued by would-be spoilers and bitter complaints about the structure of the dialogue and the flawed process that created it. Since Saturday, when the final list of participants was announced by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, several high-profile figures have withdrawn their names, including Nobel prize-winner Tawakkol Karman and the influential tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar, and the Joint Meetings Party (JMP) coalition released a statement expressing deep disappointment with Hadi’s selection of participants lacking proper qualifications and independence. Demonstrations are underway in Sanaa, protesting insufficient youth inclusion and the government’s inaction in dealing with human rights abuses during and after the revolution. The government has called up 60,000 troops to ensure security for the dialogue in the capital; while the streets are generally quiet now, checkpoints have been established on nearly every street and the city’s residents are holding their breath.

Yet despite opposition to the dialogue, it is clear that the status quo is unsustainable. The oft-repeated mantra among many Yemenis is that the question is one of dialogue or civil war. Given the stark choice, there is consensus that the dialogue will proceed. The most important issue to be discussed is the status of the South, which joined Sanaa in 1994 after a bloody civil war, and has suffered persistent and systemic marginalization since. The preparatory committee for the National Dialogue decided that half of the dialogue’s participants would be from the South, so the list of 565 names includes a strong contingency of Southerners. However, there is concern over credibility since most of the southern separatist Hirak movement leaders have consistently rejected participation citing a Sanaa-centered process that does not acknowledge their quest for equality and equity. With flare-ups of violence and a general strike called in the southern stronghold of Aden, it is clear that acceptance of the dialogue in the South will remain a divisive issue.

It is within this context that Yemen will forge forward, and just reaching this moment — despite powerful figures who wish to see its failure — is a noteworthy accomplishment. What might make this dialogue succeed where others have failed is the sentiment that there is no alternative and the broad international support that is helping to drive forward movement. After the opening plenary session, the delegates will divide into nine working groups that will serve as the real venue for discussion and negotiation, which will convene for two months before another plenary session. The delegates represent a cross-section of Yemeni society from around the country, including all political parties, civil society organizations, business leaders, youth, women, and independent figures. With significant support from the United Nations, the United States, and others in the international community, the National Dialogue will have a well-staffed and well-equipped secretariat, including a media outreach center and other mechanisms for community involvement beyond the delegates.

There is presently a great deal of momentum and optimism that will hopefully carry the National Dialogue delegates past maximalist positions and generate a climate of negotiation and compromise. But after countless conversations in Sanaa over the past week, there are some worrisome dynamics that should be noted in order to increase its chances for success:

  • There is a perception that the National Dialogue is being driven by an international agenda, particularly in the way it was constructed (not including tribal representatives and religious authorities), the allocation of representation (decision made by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar) and some of the topics proposed for discussion (good governance, the environment, and child marriage). Among Yemenis sensitive to interference by outside powers, this is a particularly salient issue. Many will lament the role of international actors, and yet at the same time, they will admit that only through external pressure will anything move forward in a country that lacks strong leadership. Finding the appropriate balance will require a nuanced approach on the part of the United Nations, World Bank, Europeans, United States, and other supportive parties.
  • Many Yemenis express concern that the National Dialogue is merely an exercise among political and social elites, established families, and power brokers that is largely being followed by people in Sanaa, but not the rest of the country. In a nationwide survey conducted by an international firm in January, 52 percent of respondents across the country had not heard of the National Dialogue. When asked what President Hadi’s priority should be, 40 percent answered corruption, 38 percent answered the economy, and only 7 percent answered the National Dialogue. There is now a concerted awareness-raising campaign underway through billboards, print media, and television so this will likely increase over time, but it is an indicator of the disconnect between Sanaa and the periphery that will need to be addressed.
  • The allocation of seats is heavily tilted toward political parties and existing elites who will likely dominate the dialogue. Although a percentage of seats were allocated for independent figures, the parties ended up playing a large role in the selection of those delegates as well. While creating strong political parties is generally an objective for a healthy, well-functioning democratic system, in this case, with many entrenched interests seeking to perpetuate the status quo, it risks leading to the marginalization of women, youth, and non-affiliated independent delegates. Ensuring that these voices are not drowned out by stronger and better organized political party representatives will be essential for the success of the dialogue in reshaping Yemen’s political environment and redistributing power.
  • Some expect that the key decisions will be made outside the margins of the dialogue among Yemen’s primary power brokers and that all this dialogue activity is just for show. The question is whether the dialogue will actually be a meaningful forum to resolve the most divisive issues, or just a sideshow to pacify the international community and revolutionary activists clamoring for change. This will depend largely on the previous two factors and to what degree Hadi provides leadership to open space for genuine discussion and debate that leads to decision-making processes inside the dialogue structure.

In addition to these challenges, there are fears that a constitutional referendum, a new parliament, and installation of a new government will be stuck waiting for movement on the toughest issues to be decided by the dialogue — namely, the relationship between the north and south (distribution of political power and resources) and the system of governance (presidential versus parliamentary versus mixed). It would be difficult to move forward on the process-oriented pieces like constitution-drafting and election preparation until there is consensus on these essential questions. Given that, it would be wise for the dialogue participants or the secretariat to set specific benchmarks for each working group in order to advance a sense of momentum even in the face of delays. Many people make grandiose statements about what will happen if there is success or failure, but how will this be defined? Keeping in mind that the transformation to federalism, for example, within six months or a year is completely unrealistic, how will success be measured? Is failure the outbreak of armed conflict? Defining some of these points at the outset might help set realistic expectations about what the dialogue can achieve increasing the potential for success.

Yemen is no stranger to national dialogues, and many Yemenis will boast that there is a tradition and culture of dialogue and consensus-building not present in other Arab countries facing similar challenges. That may be true, but the list of issues to address would be a heavy load for any country — let alone one that is divided by deep political and economic cleavages, wracked with poverty and unemployment, and struggling to maintain security with separatist violence and extremism in various forms. Despite the obvious obstacles ahead, there is great opportunity in this moment. And hopefully next March 18 will be the anniversary of an important milestone in Yemen’s democratic process.

Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy.

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