Can Yemen Talk Its Way to Peace?

As the country's National Dialogue kicks off this week, hope is in short supply.

SANAA — Dwindling countrywide security, a wrecked economy, an increasingly brazen domestic al Qaeda franchise, and various other armed groups vying for autonomy are all propelling Yemen to the brink of failed-state status. But this week, the volatile, southernmost country on the Arabian Peninsula is attempting to solve its many interlocking crises the old-fashioned way: with a conference.

Yemen's National Dialogue, which kicked off in the capital city on March 18, brings together 565 representatives from across the country's political and social spectrum for six months of talks aimed at resolving differences peacefully. The government has promoted the initiative heavily, with a state media and propaganda campaign repeatedly touting it as the only solution, and ATM machines in Sanaa reminding their customers to "support national dialogue." The stakes certainly are high: By aiming to amend the constitution, reconcile the country's myriad conflicts and create a new system of governance, the conference strives at nothing less than rewriting Yemen's social contract.

The dialogue is the latest step in a transition process initiated amid the popular protests of 2011, when longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to hand over power to Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, his deputy, as part of an internationally brokered arrangement. That agreement -- drafted by Yemeni officials alongside western diplomats and given an honorary stamp of approval by neighboring Gulf states -- stipulated that Hadi remain at the helm for a two-year transition period during which a national dialogue could sort out the mess Saleh left behind. Since then, millions of dollars of foreign aid money have poured into the country, and international constitutional experts and reconciliation specialists have flocked to Sanaa to facilitate the process.

So far, the dialogue is off to a relatively peaceful start. While a number of important figures -- including Prime Minister Mohamed Basindwa, influential tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakol Karman -- have thus far refused to participate, the majority of the 565 delegates attended the first days' sessions, (though that might have something to do with the fact that they are being paid around U.S. $100 per day). Tribal sheikhs, who are accustomed to positions of authority, have agreed to sit in the same room with those who represent the lowest caste of Yemeni society. Others have loudly interrupted speeches to voice dissenting opinions, but were convinced to restrain themselves before significantly disrupting the proceedings.

Yet what the National Dialogue is actually going to achieve remains an open question. Not only have these different factions refused to work together in the past, a number of delegates at the conference have led armed men into battle against one another in the not-so-distant past. They are wealthy tribal and business leaders who stand to reap no benefit from creating a more democratic state or vibrant civil society. Indeed, the most influential and largest faction of the southern separatist movement, a broad coalition that supports some form of autonomy for what was once an independent south Yemeni state, has refused to participate in the conference at all.

After Saleh agreed to step down in November 2011, the Yemeni officials, Western diplomats, and a U.N. envoy who had worked out the transition deal began pushing for an attendant overhaul of government institutions. Decentralization and the empowerment of local administrators were seen as antidotes to Saleh's system of absolute rule. Local leaders could attend to the needs of Yemen's diverse population better than far-away Sanaa, and large swaths of ungoverned territory would be brought under local governmental control. A better-run Yemeni state would also mean fewer opportunities for groups like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to capitalize on power vacuums or find recruits among the disgruntled residents of outlying provinces who have long been ignored by the central government.

The National Dialogue was designed to be the homegrown mechanism for starting Yemen down this path to better governance. The basic idea was sound: Dialogue is a traditional dispute-resolution mechanism in Yemeni tribal culture, and enemies routinely sit down together to work out their differences. But it is not clear what the transitional government -- or international community that supports it -- will do if this process fails. Similar attempts at dialogue in Yemen have proved futile -- in 1985 and 1994 --and armed conflict was the result. 

Since Saleh left office, the fractures within Yemeni society have only grown deeper. The Islamist Islah party, a rebel Shi'ite group known as the Houthis, and the most radical southern separatists, have all taken advantage of the transition period to push their agendas forward, and with bloody consequences. The southern separatists and Houthis have both formed dubious alliances with the Iranian government. And all the while, Hadi's influence has continued to grow -- despite the need to limit the power of the central government. As political factions have failed to reach decisions regarding the dialogue, it has fallen to Hadi to call the shots.

In a country with long memories, every politician's gripe is now on the table -- and many of the most contentious, bloodiest rivalries are on display at the dialogue. When the list of National Dialogue delegates from the General People's Congress (GPC), Saleh and Hadi's party, was leaked to local press, other groups balked at the names. GPC delegates include a handful of so-called "thug leaders," who organized the killing of unarmed protesters in 2011. The Islah list elicited a similar response: Many of those named as delegates had waged war in the streets of Sanaa during the uprising and threatened to pillage southern governorates if the separatist movement resorted to violence. Not surprisingly, tensions ran high before the conference even started.

Meanwhile, the young, independent protesters who camped out on the streets of Yemen's major cities for more than a year feel left out of the transition process. They are intelligent, savvy, and determined to build a better Yemeni state, but despite propelling change in 2011, they've been largely excluded from the conference-planning process. (Hadi announced the 40 so-called independent youth delegates who are not aligned to political parties only two days before the conference began -- and a few of them look visibly over the age of 40.)

But independent-minded young people are not the only conference participants left unsatisfied. The politicians in Sanaa who drafted the transition deal overestimated the extent to which the southern separatist movement would cooperate, and underestimated just how popular the more radical wing of the movement has become. Southern Yemenis who support secession -- the majority of the southern population -- want nothing to do with the transition process. Many believe the dialogue can only happen as a two-state negotiation between north and south, which the conference is decidedly not. As the dialogue begins, only southern separatist leaders with little political influence have agreed to participate, and even they interrupted the conference by waving the flag of the former independent south Yemeni state.

The national dialogue is about "bringing southerners back to the Republic of Yemen, which is what they don't want to go back to," said a south Yemeni journalist who wished to remain anonymous. "People are already in a new state. When you say federal system to them, they say ‘What is that?' They believe that the National Dialogue is for Sanaa....It has nothing to do with the south."

Despite all of the planning, the transitional government's credibility with the Yemeni public remains dismally low. While Yemenis support the idea of dialogue in principal, they feel that many of those taking part in the National Dialogue conference were the reason for the government's problems in the first place. They see the old leaders -- the Saleh family, other prominent politicians from his village, and the same tribal leaders from before the 2011 protests -- still wielding the most power from the sidelines. Perhaps worst of all, they see that their bus fare is five times more expensive than it was just two years ago.

But if even a small portion of the 565 delegates are able to sit in the same room without major conflict erupting over the course of this months-long dialogue process -- and can abide by the conference rules -- it will be an accomplishment. It is not out of the question that in the long run (well beyond the timeline established by the transition agreement) the dialogue will produce a fruitful outcome in some capacity, though probably not how it was meant to look on paper. International sanctions are still on the table for individuals who disrupt the transition, and the threat of such sanctions may be enough to prevent spoilers from completely undermining the process. If more leaders from the southern separatists refuse to join the conference, though, the comprehensive National Dialogue is bound to be ineffectual.

As the delegates begin their negotiations in Sanaa, Yemen's future hangs in the balance. Yet many have already written off the dialogue's chances of success. As one Yemeni official put it recently when asked if he was involved with the conference, "Thank God I am not."



In Power, But Not in Control

The Muslim Brotherhood may have the votes -- for now -- but Egypt is a ship without a rudder.

CAIRO — In the sparsely decorated waiting area just outside the Kafr el-Sheikh governor's executive offices, a photo montage depicts the governor overlooking scenes from his Nile Delta province. The artwork is dedicated to "His Excellency, Governor Saad Pasha al-Husseini."

It's an awkward way to address Husseini, to say the least. The Ottoman honorific "pasha" was phased out after Egypt's 1952 revolution, and its aristocratic connotation hardly suits a man who only two years ago was living on the edge of the law as a top leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, then an outlawed Islamist organization that built its reputation on providing social services to Egypt's impoverished masses.

The Brotherhood, however, has embraced the newfound trappings of power with gusto. "They were in prison two years ago," an aide to Husseini tells me. "They enjoy the cars and apartments they get as officials."

Now that the Brotherhood has climbed to the top of Egypt's political heap, it is doing everything it can to stay there. Brotherhood officials emphasize that their string of electoral victories since Hosni Mubarak's ouster two years ago has given them "legitimacy" -- a word that Muslim Brothers reflexively invoke to defend everything from President Mohamed Morsy's mass appointment of Muslim Brothers to top political posts to his Nov. 22 constitutional declaration granting him total authority.

But despite the Brotherhood's political power, it exerts virtually no control. Ever since Morsy's constitutional declaration and the rushed constitution-writing process that followed, a series of mass demonstrations, workers' strikes, and police-versus-protester clashes have plunged the country into near-chaos. Egypt's already weak economy is now in free fall, episodic instability has forced the military to assume control over three cities along the Suez Canal, and al-Gamaa al-Islamiya -- a U.S.-designated terrorist organization -- has deployed members to patrol the mid-Nile city of Asyut.

The Brotherhood's single-minded pursuit of power has catalyzed significant resistance to its rule, and thus contributed to Egypt's instability. But the Islamist movement shows no sign of changing course, apparently believing that further consolidating its power is the only way it can stymie what it views as a broad conspiracy against its rule.

In interviews that I conducted during a recent trip to Egypt, leading Muslim Brothers overwhelmingly traced this supposed conspiracy back to "feloul," an Arabic term referring to "remnants" of the previous regime. "Feloul are working against Egypt," Governor Husseini told me. "They're extremely against the ruling system now because the [president] is from the Muslim Brotherhood."

Mohamed al-Beltagy, a former parliamentarian who now sits on the executive committee of the Brotherhood's political party, was even more explicit. "There is a part of the system that, until now, is still connected with the old regime," he said. "This is found in many of the [state] apparatuses, like the police, media, and judiciary."

During the first year of his presidency, Morsy and his Brotherhood colleagues have focused squarely on addressing the perceived threats to their power in two of these three institutions. In August, the Brotherhood-controlled Shura Council appointed a new slate of editors to the major state-run newspapers and fired journalists who were critical of the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood's critics in the private media were investigated for crimes ranging from "insulting Islam" to "insulting the president."

Brotherhood leaders still complain that the media is against them, but contend that the tide is turning. "The media is directed against the Nahda project," said former Brotherhood parliamentarian and labor leader Saber Abouel Fotouh, referring to the Brotherhood's political platform. "But now society hates the media."

The Brotherhood also moved against the judiciary in November, when Morsy's constitutional declaration temporarily put his edicts above judicial review. The Brotherhood later dispatched its cadres to protest outside the Supreme Constitutional Court, an effort to pressure judges just before they were prepared to rule on the legality of the Brotherhood-dominated constitution-writing body. And once the constitution was ratified, Morsy quickly appointed his own prosecutor general without consulting the Supreme Judicial Council, as required by law -- a move his critics decried as an attack on judicial independence.

Cornering the historically repressive Interior Ministry will likely come next. As Beltagy told me during his interview, he sees his future "role in civil-military relations and in restructuring and reforming the Interior Ministry."

Beltagy added that, among other measures, he would seek to "allow college graduates to train for police work," rather than limiting police training to graduates from police academies. When asked whether this meant allowing Muslim Brothers to enter the police force, Beltagy said that it was "the right of the Muslim Brotherhood to lift the ban" on Brotherhood enrollment that existed under Mubarak, but that the Brotherhood wouldn't seek any special privileges for its members.

Despite these assurances, Beltagy's statement regarding his anticipated "role" in "reforming" the Interior Ministry, which I first raised during a presentation at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy two weeks ago, created a major media firestorm in Egypt. Many Egyptians worry that allowing Muslim Brothers to enter the Interior Ministry would, over time, enable the Brotherhood to use the ministry as a tool for imposing its theocratic agenda.  And the military's recent announcement that it has lifted its ban on admitting Muslim Brothers into its academy will likely heighten concerns about attempts to "Brotherhoodize" powerful institutions.

In response to my initial reporting, Beltagy disputed the notion that he would be "in charge" of Interior Ministry reform, which is how I interpreted his statement that security reform would be his "role." He also emphasized that this work would occur through the parliament once it reconvened following the next elections. But he still declined to explain what "restructuring and reforming the Interior Ministry" -- his words -- would entail, and the episode culminated in a debate, of sorts, between Beltagy and me on Egyptian television, in which Beltagy opted to attack me personally as a "Zionist" and anti-Islamic rather than answer these questions.

Whether or not Beltagy ultimately explains the Brotherhood's specific plans for "reforming the Interior Ministry," Egyptians are right to be alarmed. All Muslim Brothers, after all, are bound by oath to "listen and obey" Brotherhood leaders, which raises important doubts about their willingness to follow other chains of command.  Moreover, the Brotherhood has used violence against its critics in the recent past: When non-Islamists staged protests outside the presidential palace following Morsy's constitutional declaration, the Brotherhood dispatched its cadres to attack the demonstrators. As the New York Times reported, Morsi supporters tortured some of the protesters, "pressuring them to confess that they had accepted money to use violence in protests against [Morsy]."

For Brotherhood leaders, however, the "evidence" derived from these "interrogations" only affirms the broad conspiracy against them. "When we took some people there and interrogated them, they confessed that businessmen gave them money," Abouel Fotouh, the former Brotherhood parliamentarian, told me.

Yet the Brotherhood's power plays in these sensitive ministries have only further destabilized the country, undermining their ability to exercise control. When Morsy rammed the new constitution through in a referendum in December, the state-owned news site al-Ahram joined independent media sites in a two-day blackout in protest. Meanwhile, most Egyptian judges refused to supervise the referendum, forcing the vote to be held over two consecutive weekends to ensure sufficient coverage for Egypt's roughly 13,000 polling places. And as the tensions between Morsy and the Interior Ministry increased, police officers went on strike in at least 10 of 29 provinces.

Moving forward, the Brotherhood can therefore be expected to rely on two strategies in its bid to achieve control.

First, where possible, it will likely bypass the bureaucracies it now oversees. "The bureaucracy is the killer enemy for all these developmental initiatives -- it is a wild monster," Youth Minister Osama Yassin, one of eight Muslim Brothers in the Egyptian cabinet, told me. "And we are all working together to kill it." Yassin explained that he is attempting to create a "ministry without fences," in which the ministry would circumvent its own institutions so that services -- including cultural programs, camping activities, and employment trainings -- "go directly to the youth" or relevant NGOs.

Yassin denied that these services would be delivered through Muslim Brotherhood-controlled channels to advance his parent organization's political ambitions. However, the Brotherhood's performance in other ministries suggests that this is its modus operandi. The Brotherhood-run Ministry of Supply and Social Affairs, for instance, recently commissioned activists affiliated with the Brotherhood's political party to distribute below-market food commodities as a mechanism for winning popular support in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Similarly, the Brotherhood's political party announced on March 10 that it was considering legislation allowing the state to hire private security firms to restore security, given the absence of the police. Such a step would circumvent the "blackmail of the Interior Ministry by former regime loyalists," Abouel Fotouh told Ahram Online.

Of course, these attempts to use the Brotherhood's own networks in place of state institutions may enhance the movement's power in the short-run. But in the long run, this strategy promises to undermine the official institutions, thus weakening the Brotherhood's control.

Second, the Brotherhood will continue its bid to accumulate power through the upcoming parliamentary elections, under the apparent assumption that another victory will bolster its "legitimacy" and thereby enhance its control. "The Egyptian people admire and respect the Muslim Brotherhood," said Suez-based Brotherhood leader Abbas Abdel-Aziz, whom Morsy recently appointed to Egypt's Shura Council, the upper house of parliament. "Our history is well known and, until now, there's no other choice."

Local Brotherhood party leaders say that they are already focused on the elections, which in the aftermath of a recent court decision remain unscheduled. The Brotherhood's final list of candidates, which will include many younger faces, is in the process of being approved, and the Brotherhood has run a "We Build Our Country" campaign that uses social services for attracting -- some say buying -- votes.

Yet far from enhancing its control, the Brotherhood's focus on the next election means that it is avoiding the critical choices that come with governing. Specifically, Egypt is facing a severe cash crisis, and this year's allocation for gas subsidies has already run out.

Brotherhood leaders insist that Egypt can stop the depletion of its cash reserves by focusing on attracting foreign investments and reining in corruption -- the latter of which echoes their firm belief in a massive feloul conspiracy against them. "It's not just about subsidies," Mohamed Nasr, a member of the Brotherhood party's economic team who previously worked at the World Bank, told me. "People would definitely be willing to see this kind of cut. But they have to see on the other hand that corruption has been fought against." Nasr asserted that 40 percent of the economy under the old regime went into people's pockets.

Brotherhood leaders promise that they will be willing to undertake "cruel steps," as Governor Husseini puts it, such as cutting subsidies or raising taxes -- but only after the parliamentary elections.

"These kinds of measures, in order ... to sell them to the people, you need to put them through the parliament," said Nasr, the economist. "They have to be debated [within] the parliament."

Yet given that Egypt is unlikely to have a new parliament before the end of the summer, the country is running out of time before the economic deterioration becomes a crisis. And even once a new parliament is seated, it is hard to imagine the Brotherhood reaching across the aisle to build the kind of broad political consensus that it says is necessary to achieve difficult but necessary economic reforms. After all, the Brotherhood accuses its non-Islamist critics of being "against democracy," given their opposition to a constitution that was affirmed via referendum.

"The Egyptian people don't like them," Governor Husseini told me, when I asked him why he thought the Brotherhood's relatively secular opponents were politically weak. "The Egyptian people have morals. ... [Non-Islamists] have culture [that] is not here. And that's not our mistake -- that's their fault."

No matter how many elections the Brotherhood wins or political titles it collects, it will likely to continue to see itself as engaged in two struggles -- a historic one against the old regime, and a more recent one against its non-Islamist critics. So rather than making the tough -- and politically unpopular -- decisions that governing requires, it will likely continue its focus on power consolidation.

But as resistance to the Brotherhood's domineering style escalates, nobody should mistake this power for control. The Brotherhood's deficient governance of Egypt and refusal to build political consensus, after all, is bringing the country closer to chaos day by day.