x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A day in Sanaa reveals the state of Yemen's national dialogue

The situation in Yemen can change day to day, but looking at what happened in the course of one day recently is instructive.

Comment illustration for June 15, 2013. Pep Montserrat for The National
Comment illustration for June 15, 2013. Pep Montserrat for The National

Many in the international community may have already seen fit to declare Yemen's "negotiated transition" - after decades under the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh - a "model" for the region, but as the bulk of Yemenis see it, such a characterisation is, at best, premature. The weak and powerful alike seem to be constantly debating the way the country is heading. Most of the time, they reach the same conclusion: no one really knows.

Events in Yemen often seem to be perpetually vindicating the nation's collective ambivalence regarding both the short- and long-term future. But few things have done more to underscore the fragility and odd resilience of the country's relative state of calm than the past few days' events in Sanaa.

In a testament to what currently counts as normal in the Yemeni capital, I was only mildly alarmed last Sunday when I noticed a line of riot police securing a cordon around the National Security Bureau (NSB) when I passed through the neighbourhood.

There were no sounds of gunfire or any other telltale signs of discord - save the lines of soldiers, of course, who refused to explain their presence in any greater detail than a vague mention of "problems". Their clear resentment of my presence convinced me it wasn't worth pushing the issue, especially as I was already running late.

I made it to my destination, the second meeting of the second session of Yemen's Conference of National Dialogue, a few minutes later. I have been in Yemen long enough to remember when the conference was little more than a footnote to an internationally brokered power-transfer agreement aimed at securing Mr Saleh's exit - then the target of nearly a year of Arab Spring-inspired street protests - before Yemen slipped further into chaos.

At some point over the course of the year that followed, the conference was transformed into the centrepiece of Yemen's two-year transitional period, the "forum for the crafting of a new Yemen".

The sheer diversity of the 565 participants is certainly a sight to behold, though political debate has long been a virtual national pastime and the conference itself often seems more like a showcase for the country's political divisions than a venue allowing Yemenis to rise above them.

Things have remained surprisingly cordial, all things considered, but verbal altercations are commonplace and, on at least one occasion, have escalated to flying chairs. More than anything, though, it is the conference's setting - a luxury hotel perched on a hill outside of central Sanaa - that does the most to reinforce scepticism regarding the ultimate significance of the process.

It certainly seemed a world apart as things unfolded that Sunday. As the day's session ended, I was jolted by echoes of gunfire coming from a neighbourhood near the hotel. I tempered my sense of alarm, as no one else seemed to notice. Such apathy, however, dissipated once word of the source of the violence spread through Sanaa: troops had opened fire on a crowd of protesters affiliated with the Houthi movement in front of the NSB. By the end of the day, nine people were dead.

I spent the afternoon with friends. The dominant mood gradually shifted from confusion to fears that the spark had just been lit for a seventh round of Houthi insurgent attacks. The Houthis' participation in dialogue had virtually cemented the group's transformation from a suppressed rebel group to a mainstream political faction, but it's done little to erase their tensions with various other parties. As the target of a series of six armed conflicts with the central government, they maintain a well-armed militia and have carved a virtual state within a state out of Yemen's far north.

Apprehension over the Zaydi Shia-led group's rising power mixes with a sectarianism-reinforced narrative casting the Houthis as only proxies in a regional battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The locally rooted factors that have fuelled the group's rise often seem to be elided and many Yemenis - most vocally, Sunni Islamist imams, politicians and tribal leaders - openly cast them as little more than Iranian pawns. All of this has only added to the Houthis' general distrust of the Yemeni government, reinforcing a bunker mentality stemming from nearly a decade spent fighting.

While these frictions have fuelled deadly clashes in tribal areas north of Sanaa, in the capital itself, they have largely been manifested in rhetorical warfare. As sporadic gunfire continued in parts of the capital that day, it seemed as if things were about to take a radically different turn.

Fears of a conflagration went unfulfilled. The Houthis' reactions the following day were limited and controlled. The group's representatives staged a protest at the day's dialogue session - a cross-section of other delegates, outraged by the attack, joined in solidarity - and a march to the scene of the crackdown passed peacefully. As is often the case here, the status quo proved shockingly resilient.

Reconfiguring my plans, I headed to the home of a prominent Yemeni MP, joining a mix of other guests ranging from tribal leaders to businessmen to discuss the issues of the day over a khat chew. The capital may have been awash in sighs of relief, but the pre-existing, vague sense of foreboding remained.

Rather than showing a collective commitment to the transitional process, the quiet resolution of the previous day's crisis seemed only to suggest a collective desire to avoid being tarred with the blame for spoiling things. That may not have been a wholly negative thing in itself, but it only reinforced the artificial feel of the government established by the power-transfer agreement, which installed Mr Saleh's longtime deputy as president and divided the cabinet between his party and the establishment opposition. Rather than moving forward, it often seems as if the country is officially set on pause.

"It's like prescribing a sedative for someone with a serious illness," the host, a former member of Mr Saleh's party who defected in 2011, mused pessimistically. "Things have calmed down temporarily, but nothing has actually been solved."

The country is rife with such sentiments. Even if various power brokers have appeared to demonstrate the desire and capacity to keep things under control for now, there's no guarantee they will retain the will or ability to do so in the short-term future.

Regional and political divides show little sign of shrinking; any gains with regards to the country's general stability could disappear in an instant. The challenges facing Yemen often seem insurmountable. Still, writing the country off feels premature.

I headed out to meet up with activist friends and I felt a surprising sense of comfort as we discussed the same topics I'd discussed at the MP's house earlier. It's been more than two years since they took to the streets in the hope of toppling Mr Saleh; since then, many of them have been transformed into virtual public figures.

Their ability to remain engaged for this long is ultimately a remarkable show of endurance; there is little doubt in my mind that they will see their dreams for their country come to fruition or die trying. Of course, plenty of people have done just that and, as most readily acknowledge, the odds are most certainly against them. It is hard to take their commitment, however admirable, as a reason for consolation. Regardless, as I listened to them speculate and strategise, there was an oddly hopeful lilt to our collective agreement that, regardless of what anyone claims, Yemen remains perched on the edge of the great unknown.

 

Adam Baron is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa who reports regularly from Yemen for the Christian Science Monitor, The Economist and McClatchy Newspapers.

On Twitter: @adammbaron