In mid-2011, it seemed just a matter of time before Yemen descended into civil war. A popular – and peaceful – protest movement had been subsumed by vicious infighting between elite factions determined to seize power from one another as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) became increasingly influential and southern separatists took advantage of the growing power vacuum in the north to push their independence agenda forward.
Yet, less than two years on, the difference is palpable. There is no more fighting in Sanaa, AQAP has been pushed back and, most importantly, Yemen’s political factions are discussing the country’s future at a National Dialogue Conference, which started on 18 March. The talks should produce a new constitution and, more importantly, a more equitable social contract for the Arab world’s poorest country.
But many challenges remain. The idea that Yemenis, given their regional, personal, tribal and political differences, can come to an agreement on a new constitution is hard to believe. The southern delegation at the conference will represent a shrinking minority of moderates, who think that the dialogue is worthwhile. More and more southerners back hardliners, who think secession is the only solution. AQAP retains a visible presence in the country, and has big plans for the future.
It is odd, then, that the dialogue conference’s backers, including the transitional government and President Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi, have not thought much about the future.
If all goes to plan, fresh elections in 2014 will usher in a new era for Yemeni politics. But the government has not started planning the handover to the new administration. Nor has anyone started talking about what to do if Yemen descends into conflict once again.
Devastating violence remains the least palatable option for Sanaa, but the chances of renewed conflict remain high. The conference’s overseers should start thinking about what to do if it all goes wrong.