Yemenis continue to struggle so their homeland can restore the title of “Happy Yemen.”
Three years after the youth revolution against the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s political and social forces are cautiously pursuing the path of dialogue — a path where political, security, social and economic mines have existed for more than 30 years. There is still great hope that the process to bring about change will come to an end by promoting a historic solution that results in a new social contract, taking Yemen toward a future where the deep-rooted legacy and complexities of the past are overcome.
Between unity and partition
The most ancient [eras] that historians have cited in the history of Yemen are the Kingdom of Saba, the Kingdom of Hadramaut and the Himyarite Kingdom, which lasted until the 6th century AD.
In those times, Yemen experienced the first political unity that consisted of Saba, Dhu Raydan, Hadramaut, Yamnat and Tehama. Until today, political and social balances in the country have been governed by tribal and regional wills which unite the country when they reach a consensus and divide it when they collide.
Today, Yemeni political and social forces are trying to reach a consensus to achieve unity. They have taken their first steps through the National Dialogue, which took 300 days and resulted in several outcomes, most notably the adoption of the idea of the federal state, which participants in the dialogue hope will represent the introduction of state-building on the basis of unity, while others warn that it will be an introduction to a new partition.
Presently, the march for the National Dialogue is experiencing an important milestone. The national committee tasked with the drafting of the constitution continues its work in the hope that it will incorporate the outcome of the dialogue into a constitutional text. Yemenis will vote on this constitution in a referendum in the first quarter of 2015, so that the political process can move toward elections that promote a new legitimacy and replace the Gulf Initiative.
If political forces believe in the need to move forward with the democratic transitional process, there are factors slowing the process down out of fear that dialogue derails.
The most prominent factor is probably the obstruction attempt by the former president, who has become immune via the Gulf Initiative, and his heavy legacy to Yemeni society — a legacy of conflict, settlement of political and regional scores and terrorism threats in a place where internal, regional and international interests intersect.
In an interview with As-Safir, as one of the active figures in the National Dialogue Conference, Abdul Malik al-Mekhlafi, veteran politician and senior leader of the Nasserite Unionist Party, provides his interpretation of the political scene in Yemen, the process for democratic transition in the country and the obstacles to change.
The new legitimacy
The National Dialogue in Yemen is a continuation of the Gulf Initiative that ended the political crisis in the country after the revolutionary youth movement erupted in 2011.
It has been clear since the initiative was first suggested that it is a temporary solution and that oppositionists feared it would pave the way for the return of Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule. They intensified efforts to start and complete the dialogue so that this temporary solution would turn into to what Mekhlafi describes as a “historical solution.”
Mekhlafi said that, from the beginning, interim President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi prioritized bringing about a deep change that would lead to a change in the current structure through the success of the National Dialogue Conference.
Mekhlafi said that so far there has been remarkable progress in dialogue — although this movement has seemed slow — considering the various obstructions. He explained that this process had moved toward the adoption of the constitution, with the national commission working on the drafting process before the referendum, provided that presidential and local elections were held before parliamentary elections.
He added that, with the adoption of the constitution, the Gulf Initiative would end and a new tripartite legitimacy would be established. The legitimacy of the constitution would put an end to the consensual formula upon which the initiative had been based. The legitimacy of the president would result in a president with full powers. The representative legitimacy would be promoted first with local elections and culminate in the parliamentary elections. Thus, the process for change in the state system would be achieved from the top and bottom.
Mekhlafi said the elections would open the door to a new transitional phase, as the new constitution would include some of the provisions related to one or more electoral rounds (the share of the south in the next parliament, control over the implementation of the dialogue outcomes and the border of the regions).
Federation of unity or partition?
The most prominent outcome of the dialogue conference is probably the adoption of the idea of the federal state, which will consist of six federal regions. Opinions are divided inside and outside Yemen over this formula. Some see it as a historical solution that guarantees the unity of Yemen; others fear it would be an introduction to the country’s partition.
Mekhlafi supports the first opinion. He believes the idea of a federal state is a guarantee of unity for two reasons. First, the practices of the Saleh regime have led the issue of the south toward a critical situation. Calls for secession have emerged. Thus, “a federation provides a solution to the issue of the south in a way that satisfies the south and preserves unity,” particularly since the proposed division of the regions takes into account the overlap between the north and south, as it is based on the boundaries of unity and not those of northern and southern Yemen.
Second, centralization in Yemen was tribal and political, with certain tribes in certain areas controlling the rest of Yemen. This poses a constant threat to unity. In contrast, decentralization will contribute to the building of a state based on citizenship and equal status, allowing for the achievement of balance and ruling out monopoly.
Mekhlafi said that dividing the regions was not made on a sectarian, political or historical basis, but rather on objective economic and administrative considerations. He said there were six overlapping regions between the north and south, and that this division was only temporary. The constitution would include texts to reconsider this division if necessary. Mekhlafi said that those objecting to the project were not against the idea itself but rather the form of the division.
Obstacles to change
Although parties to the dialogue are working in good faith to sail the ship of change safely to the shore, the devilish small details and the remnants of the old regime continue to delay the democratic transition.
Mekhlafi believes there are two reasons behind this delay: first is the situation that prevailed in the country during the era of Saleh, while the second reason is closely linked to the initiative, which was the basis for the National Dialogue Conference.
Mekhlafi said that the process of change often fell under two scenarios: a strong state and a failed state.
When political power collapses in a strong state, the process of democratic transition is easier given the strong pillars that can be invoked. Conversely, when political power collapses in a failed state, the process of democratic transition becomes delayed by double requirements. People need to re-unite and the state needs to be rebuilt, which makes the transition period longer, as is happening in Yemen today.
On the other hand, Mekhlafi considers the Gulf Initiative to be closer to a political deal, limited to the idea of partnership between the ruling party and the opposition within a unity government, while granting immunity to the former president and making the vice president a transitional consensual president with limited powers, paving the way for new presidential elections within 60 days.
Moreover, he believes that the first version of the Gulf Initiative would bring Saleh back to rule, but the developments imposed a certain mechanism for the initiative to be implemented, making it broader and more detailed. Thus, the political settlement turned into a historic one that is currently being implemented.
“The worst part of the initiative is the only part left, which is the immunity granted to Saleh and the formation of the government based on division,” Mekhlafi said.
He added that granting immunity to Saleh allowed him to try to disrupt the National Dialogue, especially since he continues to have considerable influence in the centers of power in the Yemeni state and within the General People’s Congress, not to mention the large amounts of money he possesses.
In this context, Mekhlafi talked about the “coup attempt” that happened in Yemen this past month under what was known as “the battle of tires,” when “Saleh took advantage of the people’s suffering from the oil derivatives crisis and pushed his supporters to attack electricity networks and oil pipes and block roads with burning tires. He also mobilized some of the soldiers who support him.”
“The former president still thinks he could go back to power, whether himself, or through his son,” Mekhlafi said. However, he emphasized that “all that he could possibly do is create chaos. A coup is a difficult matter.”
In parallel to street action, Mekhlafi thinks that Saleh is still capable of disruption and chaos through the current parliament, where most of the members are from the General People’s Congress.
Mekhlafi explained that the parliament remained because of the initiative from the Gulf which restrained its powers by making its resolutions the subject of agreement between the People’s Congress and the parties of the opposition it represents. In case of any disagreement, the matter is presented to the president for him to solve. Even though this mechanism created a constitutional guaranty against the People’s Congress exclusively making decisions, it gave Saleh’s party the ability to disable the parliament.
The issue of the south
The issue of the south is considered one of the more important turning points for the political crisis that has been going on in Yemen ever since its independence. In spite of accomplishing unity in 1990, Saleh’s policies have contributed to complicating this issue even more. This created a civil war that the former president quickly resolved against the southern Vice President Ali Salim al-Beidh in 1994. The accumulations over the years following the unity have contributed in the emergence of calls for division.
Mekhlafi thinks that the historic solution that resulted from the National Dialogue is starting to become fruitful. The division in the south is beginning to subside and many Southern Movement leaders are participating in the dialogue.
In addition to those calls for division, the south of Yemen is under different threats — most dangerously, the presence of al-Qaeda as a prominent element in the events taking place.
Mekhlafi said that the danger of al-Qaeda’s presence is a political matter as much as it is a security matter. He explained there are three factors that control the matter of al-Qaeda. First of all, the organization is starting to become a part of Saleh’s game, inside and outside. The organization is “an American necessity, just like in Afghanistan.” The name “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” confirms that Saudi Arabia has something to do with its reinforcement, since the neighboring kingdom “exports al-Qaeda to Yemen to decrease the danger within its land,” noting that many al-Qaeda leaders and militants are Saudi nationals.
If federalism is the solution for the southern issue, then the applied formula did not please the Houthis. They turned into a tough element in the Yemeni equation after they succeeded in proving their political and military presence through six wars against Saleh’s regime.
In this context, Mekhlafi indicated that the Houthis want their region to span to Hajjah district, for sectarian considerations, and perhaps to Jawf district where there are oil and gas fields. Moreover, they are demanding a port on the Red Sea. The fact that the Houthis did not object to the idea perhaps indicates that they might accept a settlement, especially since the delegations that met with Sayyid Abdul Malik al-Houthi have asserted to him that the current distribution is modifiable if need arises in the future.
When explaining the clashes in Yemen between the Houthis and the armed forces, Mekhlafi considered the issue related to the Houthis’ urge for growth, which tempted them to try certain options before taking part in the dialogue process. Perhaps it was an attempt to boost their gains as part of the dialogue process. He also noted that the issue was related to settlement of scores from Saleh’s legacy.
Mekhlafi expressed his certainty that the dialogue would lead to solving the Houthi issue, especially since it was taking an approach that was different from the agreements that had ended the previous wars. Those agreements were restricted to cease-fires and the opening of roads. The current approach, however, includes core issues like looking into the causes of descending from the mountain and the fate of the fighters, as well as solutions for the root of the problem.
The road of change in Yemen seems to be riddled with obstacles. Under these complications, one question remains: Who will protect this process? Mekhlafi answered, “The consensus will.”
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