Seeking the right political formula for Yemen

18 July 2013

Yemen’s policymakers are at a vital time in determining the country’s future as they continue talks at the six-month long National Dialogue Conference

Yemen’s political transition is now entering its most formative stages. By some measures, it appears to be proceeding well – especially in comparison to the situation in Egypt or Libya – but the much-heralded ‘Yemen Model’ has only just begun to be put to the test.

“Yemen has gone a long way but, for sure, the near future will be critical,” says Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Adviser on Yemen.

In November 2011, after months of popular protests against his 33-year rule, then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the internationally brokered GCC initiative that transferred power to his long-time deputy Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi through one-man elections the following February.

The GCC transition plan also called for the formation of a new unity government, a comprehensive National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a constitutional referendum and general elections (parliamentary and presidential) in February 2014.

“Everyone expects it to be a rough course, but one hopes that the leadership of the dialogue and the leadership of the country will manoeuvre it into a resolution of some sort,” Saad Talib, Yemen’s trade and industry minister tells MEED. In the meantime, the country is struggling to maintain momentum.

Policymaking mechanisms for Yemen

The GCC deal enabled a peaceful transfer of the presidency and stemmed what could have been a rapid devolution of the popular uprising into deeper, more violent, conflict. Over time, however, enthusiasm for it has levelled off.

Although undeniably more inclusive, Yemen’s post-uprising governance bodies have so far failed to produce tangible change for the average citizen, failed to dismantle the old regime and failed to address the country’s structural problems head on – areas where revolutionaries had hoped to see improvement.

There are three primary policymaking mechanisms currently operating in Yemen: the coalition government (president, prime minister and cabinet); the parliament; and the NDC. All are influenced by outside factors such as the notoriously divided military, tribal politics, the international community and various opposition movements, to name a few.

There is a structural fault in the cabinet in that it really represents two parties that were at logger heads

Saad Talib, trade and industry minister

The coalition cabinet comprises 17 ministers from the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) and 17 from what is known as the National Council for the Revolution – a mixed bag of Islamists, socialists, independents and other opposition parties. The prime minister, Mohamed Basindwah, was technically a compromise choice, but is seen as close to tribal Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar and, by extension, the Islamist-leaning Islah party.

The make-up of the new government has increasingly led to inter-ministerial disagreement and ultimately inefficiency. But, as Talib alludes, maybe that was inevitable. “There is a structural fault in the cabinet in that it really represents two parties that were at logger heads,” he says.

Parliament has proven equally ineffective. Elected in 2003 for a six-year term, its mandate has already been extended twice and its legitimacy is a debatable. Moreover, it has had a difficult time passing meaningful legislation. Recently, work came to a complete halt when Al-Islah enacted a six-week parliamentary boycott in response to disagreements with the GPC.

Government and parliamentary gridlock, combined with Al-Hadi’s hesitance to issue non-security-related decrees, has led to a dearth of policymaking and implementation.

“Things are happening in terms of the normal day-to-day activity of government,” says Talib. “But the other functions of government – to improve life, to actually get the economy moving and create new jobs and hope for the Yemeni people – that has not happened.”

Many are waiting to see what becomes of the third piece of the puzzle, the NDC, before making longer-term plans.

Yemen’s national dialogue

The NDC is a keystone of the GCC initiative and, according to the conference’s secretary-general, Ahmed bin Mubarak, the 565 participants are tasked with nothing short of “building the country from scratch”.

The NDC is intended to bring together a demographically diverse group of Yemenis for six months of discussions that will lay the groundwork for the writing of a new constitution. Participants are split into nine working groups aimed at tackling various facets of this monumental task: the Southern issue; the Sadah issue; transitional justice, development, state building, good governance; development; rights and freedoms; and private agencies.

The NDC officially began on 18 March, and reached its midpoint with the 8 July submission of the final report from the first plenary session. The evaluation of the NDC’s progress largely depends on initial expectations.

“We calculated and planned for scenarios where masses of people would refuse to come to the conference, or masses would withdraw in the first few days, or complete deadlock. That did not happen,” says Husam al-Sharjabi, an NDC member who sat on the conference preparatory committee. He sees the fact that all the various factions (sheikhs, politicians, women, youth, southerners and independents, among others) remain, for the most part, in the same room as an achievement in itself. Cracks in the system are beginning to appear, however, and the hardest work is yet to come.

I don’t think we should have any illusions; the main challenges are still ahead. We haven’t discussed the big issues

Husam al-Sharjabi, NDC member

While the NDC report includes about 300 points of agreement, the three most important working groups – the South, the Sadah and state building – all failed to submit recommendations. The question they must wrestle with is whether to continue national unity (reestablished by the North after it won the 1994 civil war) as is or pursue an alternative, such as more decentralised unity or even independence for South Yemen.

Federal state

According to politicians, NDC participants and international observers, there is a growing consensus to consider the idea of a federal state. But not all sides – particularly Islah and the separatist factions of Hirak – have endorsed the idea. The fundamental structure of the state will be the focus of the second half of the dialogue.

“I don’t think we should have any illusions; the main challenges are still ahead. We haven’t started discussing the main and big issues yet,” says Sharjabi.

There are doubts as to whether the next phase of the dialogue will produce reasonable solutions, a prospect Talib gives a 40 per cent chance and if so, whether they can be implemented. One concern from the beginning of the transitional period has been the influence of Yemen’s traditional power brokers. The uprising may have introduced new players to the political arena, but that has done little to weaken the country’s political elite.

Direct interference in the transition by the old guard – especially the Al-Ahmar family, and former president Saleh – has been more restrained than some may have expected, but it still prompts complaint. Saleh in particular, who continues to head the GPC, has been accused of obstructing the transition by both his opponents and, implicitly, the UN, which has named him as a potential spoiler on multiple occasions.

Another conceivable problem is the NDC rules of procedure themselves. They call for a 90 per cent agreement to adopt a principle and, if that is not reached, a second vote requiring 75 per cent approval. These high thresholds will make deciding the thorniest issues at the plenary level quite difficult. Failure to reach a deal could push decision-making into smaller committees or outside the dialogue entirely.

Private political negotiations are already occurring in parallel with the NDC, but so far complaints about backdoor dealing have been muted. In fact, one Western observer close to the dialogue is actually worried that “not enough [discussion] is happening outside the conference”. That could change as pressure to find solutions increases.

Officially, if NDC delegates do not reach an agreement, a recently formed consensus committee would become the lead mediator and potential decider. The committee led by Al-Hadi consists of the nine members of the NDC executive committee, the nine heads of the working groups and six NDC members appointed at large. “All the main players in the country and the main leaders are in the consensus committee,” says Sharjabi, who is himself a member.

The committee will remain intact after the conclusion of the NDC in September to oversee the implementation of the conference outcomes, a process fraught with peril. The Western observer’s greatest concern is the Yemeni street, more specifically the under-represented yet important bloc of Southern separatists, will not accept the results of the conference.

But even if all the GCC milestones are reached, at what pace the timeline advances is a topic of much debate. “We had some cushion in the timeline – four months – [but] we spent that already,” says Sharjabi.

Ambitious timeline

One transition adviser insists the international community will not tolerate a postponement of the current 18 September NDC end date. They do, however, admit that delays could be passed on to the constitutional drafting committee, which is set to begin working immediately after the NDC finishes. That committee will be tasked with resolving any issues the NDC does not.

Even if the constitution is written within the allotted three-months (ending on 18 December), creating an up-to-date voter registration list in time for the planned elections will prove challenging.

According to Judge Abdulmoneam al-Eyani, a member of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum, the current plan is to electronically register, using biometric finger printing, all Yemenis above the age of 18 (roughly 13 million people) by January. Registration would begin in September and occur over four rounds. Similar to the political timeline, an elections adviser has labelled the proposal “ambitious.”

All signs point to at least a temporary delay in presidential, and perhaps also parliamentary, elections. But for most, an extension of the transitional period would not be the worst outcome.

“The more important matter is getting the right formula in place and then even if the elections are postponed for a short while , or a slightly longer while – three to nine months or to the end of [2014] – no one would argue much about it,” says Talib, in a statement indicative of broader sentiment. “It’s just that if the extension is too long [that] it becomes an issue.”

Key fact

If NDC delegates do not reach an agreement, a consensus committee will become the lead mediator

Source: MEED

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