Dispatch

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."

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

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