x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Slow pace of talks has created a new issue for Yemenis

As Yemen's national dialogue moves slowly, a new issue emerges: Should the original schedule for designing a new Yemen be amended, or honoured?

Two months into Yemen's National Dialogue Conference (NDC), the process is moving slowly, and that has generated a new issue: Should the original schedule for designing a new Yemen be amended, or honoured?

The NDC was born as part of a GCC-sponsored transition agreement in November 2011. That document led to the handover of power, in February 2012, from Ali Abdullah Saleh to his vice-president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. The dialogue conference, which began on March 18, was to start a two-year process: six months for the NDC, then the writing of a new constitution, followed by a referendum, parliamentary elections and, potentially, a presidential election.

But after two months of the NDC, reality has begun to set in. Many delegates, and ordinary Yemenis, now believe the existing timeline is unrealistic. NDC delegate Ali Al Emad, for example, says "more time may be required".

But that could involve extending Mr Hadi's current term as transitional president, possibly to 2016, an extension which was not foreseen in the 2011 agreement.

Partisan media outlets in Sanaa began to discuss an extension two weeks ago, following rumours that Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy, had discussed the matter with Mr Hadi.

Newspapers close to the powerful Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, and papers linked to the Islamist party Al Islah, oppose any extension.

Activists from Revolutionary Youth and other parties joined in protest against what is seen as an undemocratic proposal. Foreign embassies have been criticised for perceived support for Mr Hadi.

An extension would raise awkward constitutional questions, and the debate now centres on two issues: legitimacy, and public awareness of the GCC-backed accord.

While young Yemenis continue to demand accountability and transparency, many elite political actors interpret the process according to their interests. The young NDC delegate Shatha Al Harazi argues that the youth movement continues to be ignored by the elite and by the UN envoy, Mr Benomar.

Youth activists are not alone in questioning the legitimacy of the agreement and the transition process. The Southern Peaceful Movement (Hirak), Houthi rebels and others all have their own grievances.

Some factions from Hirak are boycotting the dialogue but the group led by Mohammed Ali Ahmed is taking part, although he risks losing his stature in the south by doing so. Northern rebels, followers of Abdul Malek Al Houthi, are participating in a limited way, through a few high- profile delegates.

Despite these problems, many NDC delegates say an extension seems to be necessary. "The transition process began with Mr Hadi, he should see it through," said one delegate, Lutfi Jaffer Shattara. Independent delegate Bara'a Shaiban says he can't imagine not extending Mr Hadi's term when there is no new voter registrar to proceed with the goals set by the GCC initiative.

Mohammed Saleh Al Saadi, a young delegate from Abyan, identifies two obstructions to progress. First, Yemen's economic crisis, and second, the continued conflict between Al Islah, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the GPC party of Mr Saleh, the former president.

These major factions both expected to exert great influence over Mr Hadi during the transition, and so over the next government. But having failed to gain as much control as they wanted, both Al Islah and the GPC are now manoeuvring behind the scenes to extend their influence into the post-transition period.

Many observers and delegates say Al Islah may become the biggest obstacle to Mr Hadi's extension, but the GPC also objects.

However, many other delegates agree that Mr Hadi should oversee the entire transition period. His involvement "on the ground to finish the transition" is vital because "at the end, it's not up to the international community but up to Yemenis", said Mr Shattara.

There are also questions about the role of the UN's man on the scene during the second phase of the transition, as conditions evolve. So far that man, Mr Benomar, has been unable to shift perceptions of his role during the transition; he is seen as working with elite groups only, and paying too little attention to other Yemenis. Mr Benomar did meet some youth activists, but delegates such as Mr Al Harazi insists he must grant youth a greater stake in the process.

Others believe that the whole National Dialogue Conference is simply a facade to distract attention from crises in Sanaa and elsewhere, including the whole of the south of Yemen.

The GCC agreement called for a "government of national unity", with ministers drawn 50 per cent from Mr Saleh's GPC alliance and 50 per cent from the Joint Meeting Parties alliance of five parties.

Mr Al Emad is among the delegates who believe that this formula must change. "This current government will do nothing and we request a technocrat government," he says.

In the streets of Sanaa, this view is echoed by many who fail to see progress on the economy, security or relations with Hirak. They say day-to-day administration is preoccupied with managing the obstacles posed by the rival factions.

The outside world considers Yemen stable as long as the balance among rivals prevents any escalation to armed conflict. The country's stagnation on vital issues is not seen as the problem that it actually is.


Fernando Carvajal is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He currently lives in Sanaa

On Twitter: @CarvajalF