Yemen needs more than words

18 July 2013

Yemenis are working together to draft a new constitution, but they need to make sure it is adhered to

If there were a checklist of critical problems an Arab state might face in the 21st century, Yemen would tick more or less every box.

With its active Al-Qaeda wing, a secessionist movement in the south, sectarian tensions in the north, warring elite factions, a collapsing economy, dwindling oil reserves and a mounting poverty crisis, it is a wonder the country made it through the 2011 uprising that unseated its president of three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh, at all.

Yet as the Syrian conflict grinds on and Egypt once again descends into chaos, Yemen is being held up as a success story. Civil war was averted in 2011. Al-Qaeda has been beaten back – for now at least – and a six-month series of talks have brought together an unprecedented array of groups.

The 565 delegates attending the National Dialogue Conference are working towards a new constitution that could ensure future stability and prosperity.

Yemen already has a pretty good constitution, though, written in 1990, when the formerly separate republics of the North and South unified. At the time, it was seen as the most farsighted document of its kind in the region. But Saleh’s corrupt and greedy regime ignored much of its substance, building a shadow state that was far more powerful than the country’s formal institutions and absorbing what little wealth the country produced.

If Yemen is to end its downwards spiral, it will be the actions of the government that comes after the new constitution is written that will be most important. If they honour its spirit, Yemen might just prosper. If they ignore it, more pain surely awaits.

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