Each of Yemen’s disparate groups have been asked to nominate 15 representatives for national dialogue
On 21 February, Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi became president of Yemen in a one-man election. The poll was as much a referendum on his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s leader of 33 years, as a sign of his popularity.
“We are voting Saleh out,” one voter said on the day of the election in Sanaa. “Anything is better than him.”
The election came after a year in which protesters took to the streets demanding an end to the Saleh era of tribal patronage, corruption and economic stagnation and the creation of a new, more inclusive political system. Divisions at the top of the country’s political, economic and military elites led to fighting on the streets of Sanaa and proxy battles across the country, particularly between the Republican Guard, led by Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali and the dissident general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Others were more circumspect. “[Al-Hadi] is just the same as Saleh,” said a taxi driver in Sanaa, on election day. “Hopefully, it is only for two years.” Al-Hadi, a former general who defected from the then separate south of Yemen after a civil war in 1986, had been vice-president of the unified country since another civil uprising in 1994.
How long Al-Hadi will remain in power is an open question. Under the terms of an agreement brokered by the GCC, Al-Hadi has effectively had presidential powers since the transition deal was signed in Riyadh last November. The deal was endorsed by Saleh along with his General People’s Congress (GPC) party and the National Council, a shadow government set up during the uprising of 2011 and led by the parliamentary opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).
Al-Hadi’s role, under the agreement, is to work with the country’s unity government, made up of a 50:50 split of GPC and JMP members and led by the JMP’s Mohammed Basindwah. The aim is to broker national dialogue on the future of the country, create a new constitution and reform military during a two-year transitional period, which began with the elections.
“The youth were supposed to produce a pool of names, but there wasn’t enough planning”
Alaa Qasem, Resonate! Yemen
The end of the transition period should bring with it new parliamentary elections, the first since 2003, and probably a new presidential poll. In short, if Al-Hadi does what is expected of him, he will have put himself out of a job by 2014. However, sources closely involved in the transition process say that things are not so clear-cut. It is unlikely, says a diplomatic source, that Al-Hadi and the Basindwah government will be able to move the national dialogue forward and complete the new constitution in the planned timeframe.
There is also still some debate as to whether there will be elections in 2014. Alaa Qasem of Resonate! Yemen, a civil society engagement group, which has been part of the national dialogue talks, concedes that things have not been progressing as quickly as expected. “It’s not going as well as everybody was hoping,” he says. Without the national dialogue, it will be impossible to create a new constitution for Yemen, says a source who was involved in the GCC initiative. “The way the transition agreement is structured, the national dialogue is meant to be the precursor to drafting the constitution,” he says. “It is during the dialogue that they are meant to work out how the constitution will be put together. So without the dialogue, there can’t be a new constitution or elections.”
A preparatory committee for the dialogue was meant to be put together within weeks of Al-Hadi’s appointment and a council to oversee talks was expected to be formed by the end of June. But so far, Al-Hadi has only appointed envoys to talk to the groups, who would make up the dialogue, including representatives of the GPC, the JMP, youth groups, civil society organisations, women’s groups, and southerners. The envoys have asked each group to nominate 15 representatives, from whom Al-Hadi will choose five to sit on the dialogue council. This process has not proved easy.
“The youth were supposed to produce a pool of names, but there wasn’t enough planning,” says Qasem. “Just to bring 100 people together was hard, it wasn’t well thought-out and there were groups trying to destroy the process.” Infighting led several groups to leave the process, he adds. Although names have been submitted for Al-Hadi’s approval, they are unlikely to satisfy the disparate youth groups, who started the protests that led to Saleh’s ousting in 2011.
Another sticking point in the national dialogue will be the role of the south, which until 1990 was the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Southerners have long complained that the merger of the north and south left tribal and military elites in Sanaa in firm control of governance and the economy, and left them marginalised.
In 1994, a brutal, but short-lived civil war broke out between southern secessionists and northern unionists. The unionists, led by Saleh, won and Sanaa increased its stranglehold over the country’s resources and political life. “We are looking for the right to self-determination in accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions [from] June 1994, which was initiated voluntarily and cannot be imposed by force,” says a southern academic, with close ties to the southern movement.
“The unity after 22 years has proved to be a dismal failure … how can we carry on? The south is looking for a change, a significant change, looking for bread, dignity, democracy and social justice, and nothing else.”
Al-Hadi, himself a southerner, has so far done little to show that he is willing to pay heed to the southern movement’s demands, says the academic. This is probably because most southern leaders are calling for outright secession rather than a federal state, the option preferred by northerners.
Meetings between government officials in Sanaa and southern representatives, including Ali Nasser, the former southern prime minister and president, and Salim Ali Beidh, the first vice-president of the unified state, held in June and July, ended without any achievements, says a source with knowledge of the meetings.
“The south is looking for a significant change, looking for bread, dignity, democracy and social justice”
Nasser, who took Sanaa’s side in the 1994 civil war and was part of the National Council, is said to be in favour of a federal state. Beidh, who precipitated the war by quitting his post as Saleh’s deputy in 1993, is the leader of Al-Herak, the southern secession movement and will consider nothing less than separation. In July, Jamal Benomar, the UN envoy to Yemen, said that invitations to a November national dialogue conference had been issued to southern representatives, but Beidh had said he would not attend. In a worrying development, security forces opened fire on protesters who rallied in Aden on 7 July, the anniversary of the end of the 1994 civil war, leaving four dead.
Similar incidents were reported in Sayoun and Mukalla, in Hadramawt province. Rule of law is also breaking down in the south, while the provision of government services, including electricity and subsidised fuel and food, has come to almost a complete standstill, says the academic. “There is killing and kidnapping; there is no law, no electricity, no water,” he says. “There is no food on the shelves in the shops. Hell has been let loose.”
If preparations for the country’s political future have not yet proved successful, Al-Hadi has made some ground elsewhere. In 2010 and 2011, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its sister group Ansar al-Sharia, seized swathes of land in southern Yemen, including the towns of Zinjinbar, Lawdr, Shaqra and Jaar. Since April, newly appointed military leaders in the south, who replaced Saleh loyalists, have been working to unseat the groups, with considerable success.
But having been pushed out, AQAP is striking back. On 21 May, a suicide bomber killed more than 90 soldiers practicing for a military parade the following day. AQAP claimed responsibility for the attack and is said to be planning more. It has also been involved in a series of kidnappings, including that of Abdullah al-Khalidi, the Saudi consul to Aden.
Meanwhile, the country’s humanitarian situation, precarious before the events of 2011, has continued to deteriorate in 2012. Sources, who travelled to the areas previously occupied by AQAP and Ansar al-Sharia, reported scenes of widespread devastation. The fighting this year displaced some 32,000 people, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in addition to the 350,000 people displaced by earlier fighting in the south and the ongoing conflict between Sanaa, Salafist groups and Shia Houthi tribesmen in the northern province of Sadaa began in 2006. That is without counting the estimated 220,000 refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia, who are based in Yemen.
The 2011 crisis also had a major impact on the country’s economy. Gross domestic product fell 5 per cent during the year, while unemployment rose to 50 per cent. In February, the UN World Food Programme declared that 5 million people in Yemen were eating so infrequently that they were suffering long-term physical damage. In some parts of the country, acute malnutrition among children is as high as 30 per cent, twice the UN benchmark for hunger crisis.
The Basindwah government is trying to balance the books, but has budgeted for a deficit of $2.3bn and has been asking its Gulf neighbours for help, which is taking time.
An aid pledging session planned for late June was pushed back to September after the death of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who held the Yemen brief in Riyadh.
“Resolving economic issues is very difficult right now,” says Mohammed al-Maitami, a professor at Sanaa’s International University of Technology and an expert on the domestic economy. “The government has to target security issues, which are quite fragile, before it can do anything on the economy.”