Yemen’s National Dialogue Off to a Rough Start

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Yemen's national dialogue conference began last week, but several key forces are boycotting its sessions, which may lead to its failure, writes Fawaz Traboulsi.

Earlier this week (March 18), Yemen's national dialogue conference started in Sanaa. The conference itself represents a major step in the transition to a new political system. The conference was originally scheduled for the end of last year, but was repeatedly postponed to give the preparatory committee time to complete the rules of procedure and form the nine teams that will decide the fate of the Southern Movement, the status of Saada province, restructuring the army, implementing “transitional justice” and rebuilding the government. The UN shares the latter two objectives, and its agencies are supervising the conference preparations.

It will be difficult to implement any form of “transitional justice” since the Gulf Initiative, on which the conference is based, exempted ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his aides from being held responsible for any financial crime during his 33-year reign.

Whatever the case, the conference will include 565 delegates. They are supposed to represent all Yemeni political currents, social classes and regions. The conference, which has six months to complete its work, will have its deliberations broadcast via radio and television.

At first glance, the fact that many Yemenis will be deciding the fate of their country looks promising. The conference looks like a “founding conference,” just as was demanded by the rebellious youth in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen (although the actual transition methods used in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were different). Every political current in the conference should be composed of 30% women. There are also quotas for youth and independents.

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But things do not look so promising after a taking closer look at the nuances of representation and participation.

In addition to the “reassurances” given to the ousted president, his party — the Popular Congress Party (PCP) — has the most representatives at the conference. The transitional president, who is the PCP vice president, appointed the representatives of the youth, women and independents, sparking resentment among these groups. Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa announced that he will boycott the conference to protest the biased selection of youth, women and independent representatives.

The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which is the main opposition bloc, also protested but will not boycott the conference. Furthermore, the rich and influential businessman Sheikh Hamaid al-Ahmar, a prominent member of the Hashid tribe and member of the National Gathering for Reform, will boycott the conference to protest the limiting of Saada province representatives to delegates from the Houthi movement.

The dialogue sessions will start on March 18 to commemorate the martyrs who fell during the “Friday of Dignity” massacre, which was carried out in Change Square by Saleh’s snipers. Approximately 50 youth were killed and hundreds were injured.

The representation of revolutionary youth at the conference is being reduced, while the representation of Saleh’s regime is being increased. So it’s no wonder that most revolutionary youth have chosen to boycott the conference. How can the revolution’s representatives and those who fired at them sit around the same table? Whatever the case, the youth boycott is designed to protest the organized marginalization policy practiced by Yemeni authorities against the revolutionary youth, the attempts to get them out of the squares even if by force, and attempts to exclude them from the transitional phase. But the youth will not surrender to the attempts to marginalize them. Youth activists decided to hold a series of actions to pressure the conference. Their actions have sincere goals: removing the security services from the universities, prosecuting Saleh, recovering looted money and isolating Saleh's sons and relatives from sensitive military and security positions.

The main force that is absent from the dialogue conference is the Southern Movement, which sparked the Yemeni revolution. Those who advocate disengaging the South from the North and restoring the state of South Yemen, which existed before Yemen united in 1990, have joined forces with those advocating federalism between the South and North. Both those forces are boycotting the conference, despite numerous attempts by the UN delegates to persuade them to participate. Those two forces are asking for an “honest dialogue” between northern and southern Yemenis. On the opening day of the Sanaa conference, a million-man demonstration took place in Aden calling for an honest dialogue. The demonstration’s motto was “the decision is ours.”

This disconnected start will have serious repercussions on the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference. The conference will decide whether Yemen will be able to transition from tyranny to democracy and rid itself of a mafia-like regime, do away with centralized authoritarianism and establish a federal system that recognizes the rights of the regions, after an Arab- and internationally-supervised referendum settles the matter. Only if such steps happen can the Yemeni national dialogue be said to have succeeded.

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Found in: yemeni power transfer, yemeni revolution, national dialogue conference, gulf initiative, gulf
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