National Dialogue ‘Last Chance’ for Peace in Yemen?

Many in Yemen see the looming National Dialogue Conference as the country’s last chance to avert armed conflict, but Khaled al-Hourougi reports that many are upset that the international community is imposing its will on Yemen's internal affairs. 

al-monitor A soldier stands guard outside a damaged government building in Zinjibar, the provincial capital of Yemen's southern province of Abyan, after the army retook it from al-Qaeda-linked militants, June 14, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.

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national dialogue conference, gulf

Nov 14, 2012

Yemenis of different intellectual, political, and cultural backgrounds agreed that the National Dialogue Conference is Yemen’s ultimate salvation, since several dangerous crises overwhelm the country.

However, political and social elites in Yemen fear that this conference might not help solve the country’s worsening conditions. They also fear that the international patronage provided for this political initiative might hold Yemen in the custody of the international community to better serve the interests of the West, regardless of the country’s circumstances and reality.

Some elites believe that the comprehensive National Dialogue Conference is Yemen’s last chance to be rescued. Therefore, if this conference fails, they fear the country will be heading toward a civil war and an armed conflict.

In fact, if the dialogue reaches a deadlock, all Yemeni parties will immediately become engaged in an armed conflict to maintain their interests by force, or so some argue. The situation might become much worse if each party sticks to their guns, mainly with respect to the issues that the conference will discuss. In fact, all concerned parties must be flexible when dealing with such challenging issues. They must be also prepared to make mutual compromises, in order to reach a common denominator that will preserve the rights of all parties.

Moreover, Yemen’s political and social elites share other daunting concerns related to the international community’s role in dealing with the issues that the national dialogue conference will discuss.

Although it knows little about the dimensions, background, and political implications of the problems that the conference will tackle, the international community is today imposing its own opinion on such problems. Consequently, the situation will become much more complicated simply because the ready-made solutions provided by the international community do not take into consideration Yemen’s critical conditions and its tribal and political interferences.

These conditions and interferences must be considered when determining solutions.

Yemeni journalists and intellectuals also fear that National Dialogue Conference might become an umbrella for such decisions to which Yemenis do not contribute. The 10 countries that support the Gulf Initiative follow carefully all executive steps related to the political settlement’s items. They threaten all Yemeni parties of so-called international legitimacy and the Council of Security, which will impose international sanctions against any party that impedes the political settlement process and prevents the implementation of all items of such settlement.

The items of the settlement must be implemented within the second transitional period that will end as Yemen’s presidential and parliamentary elections kick off in February 2014.

Violated sovereignty

Several journalists and intellectuals told Al-Hayat: “Yemen’s sovereignty is violated and the country’s affairs are managed by the embassies of several Western countries in Yemen.”

They also believe that the role of Yemeni institutions is limited to executing the orders they receive from the international community. The fears of such journalists and intellectuals have emerged after tasks have been distributed to several Western countries that support the Gulf Initiative.

In fact, France was entrusted with drafting the new constitution of Yemen, while Russia has helped to organize the National Dialogue Conference. The United States was tasked with restructuring the Yemeni army and ending the current divisions among the military.

According to the same journalists and intellectuals, it is very important to profit from the expertise of such [foreign] countries and their support of the political settlement to ensure a peaceful power transition, mainly as Yemen is currently witnessing a critical period.

In reality, the role of such foreign countries is limited to expertise sharing only, since they intend to impose their opinions and political orientations to better serve their interests in Yemen and the whole region in general. In fact, these countries will not prioritize Yemen’s interests and needs over their own interests and goals.

In addition, Yemeni journalists and intellectuals believe the US is not as concerned as the Yemenis are about the restructuring and reorganization of the Yemeni army and security institutions, based on specific technical, professional, and national criteria.

The US cares little about helping Yemen build a professional, strong army. In fact, America’s biggest concern is terrorism and al-Qaeda, which has become Washington’s major threat, compared to the world’s other terrorist organizations.

Al-Qaeda threatens US interests and allies in the region, mainly in light of the considerable gains this organization has acquired during 2011-12. The organization also took advantage of the insecurity that accompanied the Yemeni revolution against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.

Yemenis are also concerned about the role France will play in drafting the country’s constitution. The French Ambassador to Yemen, Frank Gillet, met recently with Yemen’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Salem Basindwa, in Sanaa. During the meeting, Gillet confirmed the new constitution “will be drafted by the competent Yemeni authorities” and that France’s role would be limited to providing necessary technical support.

In a news conference, Minister of Legal Affairs Dr. Mohammad al-Mikhlafi confirmed Gillet’s statements.

Main mission

In addition, Mikhlafi stated that the mechanism for the power transition process has determined the competent authorities responsible for drafting the constitution. He also confirmed that the mission of the National Dialogue Conference has two aspects.

The first defines the terms under which the constitutional committee shall be formed. As for the other aspect, it is related to the conference’s perception of the future, including the structuring of the state and the form of the political regime. However, Mikhlafi stressed the importance of the support provided by foreign countries, confirming that the international community supports the entire power transition process. He added that such process would fail without the international community’s support for Yemen’s new constitution.

Despite all assurances, Yemenis fear that France and other Western countries will impose constitutional articles that prejudice the Yemeni identity and contribute to the division of the Yemeni community.

Yemenis’ concerns are based on the various items suggested in the draft agenda of the National Dialogue Conference, particularly the item related to the “the state’s identity and form.” This item has become a major concern for Yemenis, because it tackles Yemen’s national and Islamic identity and the country’s territorial integrity.

The first article of the draft constitution stipulates that “The Republic of Yemen is an Arab, Islamic and independent sovereign state whose integrity is inviolable, and no part of which may be ceded. The people of Yemen are part of the Arab and Islamic nation.”

According to the second article of the Yemeni constitution, “Islam is the religion of the state, and Arabic is its official language.”

As for the third article of the [draft] constitution, it provides that “The [Islamic] Shariah is the source of all legislation.”

There are growing concerns that such articles would be amended or annulled, thus laying the foundation for a secular regime in Yemen or a federal regime that accelerates the separation between North Yemen and South Yemen. Yemenis fear particularly that a federal regime could be adopted, separating North Yemen and South Yemen according to the conditions imposed by the South Yemen Movement and not as suggested by several Yemeni political parties.

According to these parties, Yemen should be divided into several cantons in conformity with the country’s geographic and demographic characteristics, in addition to the financial and natural resources.

Many Yemeni politicians criticized “the national long-term partnership” — which is mentioned in the draft agenda of the National Dialogue Conference. These politicians fear that the new draft constitution includes this item and believe that it is an ambiguous title that may be intended to adopt a political and non-political quota system between Northern and Southern Yemen.

This explanation is the most logical, against a backdrop of suggestions regarding the issue of the South and the accompanying complaints about excluding the people of the Southern governorates from power, despite representing an independent state before the unification took place on May 22, 1990.

These politicians, who spoke to Al-Hayat, didn't rule out the possibility that, based on the concept of partnership, France would reproduce the Lebanese [sectarian power sharing] system in Yemen.

Dissimilarities between the two countries have been taken i nto consideration. While a confessional quota system is applied in Lebanon, a regional quota system may be applied in Yemen (between North and South). And while the head of state will come from a specific region, the head of the government will be from the other. The same applies to parliament, the judiciary, the military institution and others. In the event of adopting this system, the door will be open to other actors that it will be hard to ignore when talking about partnership and a system of allocating power, such as the Houthis in the Northern Yemeni province of Saada and the traditional tribal forces.

They emphasise that the concept of the national long-term partnership contradicts the concepts and rules of democracy, which is based on a competition between political parties that race to get to power, through the voters’ support of their programs.

In the event of adopting a parliamentary system or mixed government that consists of combining the presidential and parliamentary systems of government, these politicians also believe that the concept of partnership contradicts the principle of equal opportunities, which would be negatively affected by the political factors associated with the system of allocating power.

Logical concerns

The above concerns are certainly logical and legitimate, given that all parties that will take part in the national dialogue have not yet announced their point of view regarding the issues to be discussed in the National Dialogue Conference.

Moreover, no perceptions of solutions and remedies to each issue — most notably the issues of the south, the Houthis in the province of Saada, the restructuring of the army, the perception of the Yemeni constitution and the articles that should remain intact or are supposed to be abolished or amended — have been proposed, as if these parties are waiting for the proposals of international sponsors of the initiative to discuss and agree upon.

Moreover, even though all participants in the dialogue submit their perceptions regarding every issue, they will be — in the best case scenario — the perceptions of elitists that reflect the convictions and perceptions of political and partisan leaders, civil society organizations and social and tribal groups.

These perceptions have nothing to do with the popular base of political parties and other groups; this would prevent the outcome of the dialogue from gaining a national consensus. The outcome may be rejected by the people, particularly the new constitution that is due to be submitted for approval in a referendum.

Political parties in Yemen were supposed to consult the opinion of their popular base regarding the various agenda items of the National Dialogue Conference, before discussing them with other parties.

The General People's Congress, led by Yemen’s former President Saleh, is placed first in this regard, even though its consultative meetings — which are held between its senior, intermediate leaders and the party’s branches in the provinces — are limited to the issue of the South and how to resolve it.

Anyway, the current political scene in Yemen is still confused, according to the United Nations envoy to Yemen Jamal Bin Omar.

In a recent statement to the media, he said: “The political process has significantly progressed, and power transition is being implemented. However, the situation is still vulnerable and requires that the international community shows growing concern in this critical phase that Yemen is experiencing.”

He stressed that the future months will be decisive, “the transition process will succeed or we will be going back to zero.”

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