In Yemen, like in many Arab Spring countries, the revolution’s center of gravity has shifted from the popular revolts in Sana'a’s Change Square to quiet boardrooms across the capital, where nominally-elected political elites are guiding the beleaguered country through the democratic reform process.
However, in contrast to other revolutionary struggles around the Middle East and North Africa, Yemen's political transition is being driven by an experimental regional and international effort to stabilize the geopolitically sensitive hotspot in the Arabian Peninsula.
Beginning with the November 2011 transfer of power from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to his longtime second-in-command Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, the Saudi-brokered, U.S. and UN-backed Gulf country initiative has achieved progress toward its stated goals of restructuring the military and government in preparation for multiparty elections in early 2014.
The progress includes several rounds of presidential decrees removing or demoting former President Saleh's relatives and loyalists from top military and government posts.
Yet many worry that these early victories could be wiped away if the impending National Dialogue Conference (NDC), originally scheduled to begin mid-November, fails to meet its high aims.
The NDC, now slated to begin in December, will convene Yemen’s diverse political landscape for six months of discussions aimed at drafting a new constitution and preserving the unity of the state. Preparations for the dialogue have been underway since mid-year, when the president tasked a 25-person “preparatory committee” with deciding the structure of the conference.
The committee membership spans three generations and is made up of representatives from nearly all major interest groups in Yemen. Participants say they are fully aware of the magnitude of their work.
Committee member Dr. Ahmed Bin-Mubarak, the Director of the Center of Business Administration at Sana’a University, said, "In all our history, we never had such opportunity to sit together for months."
Many Yemenis welcome the NDC because it represents a break from Sana'a’s elite-driven political process, marking the first time such an inclusive spectrum of representatives will come face to face to discuss issues affecting daily life.
Mubarak’s fellow committee member, Saleh al-Sayadi, secretary general of People’s Democratic Party, said, “Yemenis don't have a choice other than the dialogue," citing civil war as a looming alternative.
The preparatory committee’s many delays are a reflection of the daunting endeavor they have embarked on. Some members blame missed deadlines on the two major Islamic holidays that have interrupted scheduled meetings. Mubarak adds that he was surprised to find that topics of discussion he “expected to take one day, took two weeks.”
Representatives on the preparatory committee said that all they have left to do is decide on the allocation of the 565 NDC seats – no small chore – before submitting their report to President Hadi, who will officially announce the start date for the dialogue.
Once that happens, the real work begins. National and international leaders will focus their efforts on lobbying two political blocs whose particpation could determine the success or failure of the dialogue and, by extension, the Gulf initiative’s vision of a unified Yemeni state.
The so-called “southern question” is considered by many to be the greatest challenge. In only five years, the Southern Movement or Hirak, based out of the southern port city of Aden, has transformed itself from a simple alliance of disgruntled workers from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) into a formidable, although divided, political bloc whose more radical elements are calling for nothing short of secession from the “northern” government in Sanaa.
Internal divisions among southerners in general has been a sensitive topic for both the committee and the Yemeni population at large. Although it is an ongoing debate, many agree with Sayadi that “Hirak doesn't represent all the south, and the south is not all Hiraki," a reality that makes designating southern representatives to the NDC a potentially explosive subject.
The preparatory committee recently addressed that issue by announcing that 50-percent of seats will be reserved for southerners, in an apparent concession to lure Hirakis to the negotiation table. But because members of parties other than Hirak can also be considered southerners, even if they do not agree with the movement’s objectives, the last-minute effort may fall flat. Hirak’s participation in the dialogue remains up in the air.
Beyond issues of representation in the NDC, Mubarak says that there also needs to be “on the ground” changes in order for Hirak to participate. He feels President Hadi must send a clear signal, possibly through executive decrees resolving land disputes or reinstating pensions, that northern policy towards the south is shifting. Without these changes, he argues, Hirak’s participation is unlikely because doing so would amount to Hirak “burn[ing] themselves” in the eyes of their supporters.
The other major obstacle to the plan for a unified Yemen lies north of the capital in Saada governorate, which borders Saudi Arabia. There, a Zaidi Shi’ite movement, known as Al-Huthi, has been beating back government forces for control of the territory for most of the past decade.
Last year’s anti-government revolts created an opening for the rebels not only to solidify their stronghold in Saada but to expand southward into the capital.
Both Mubarak and Sayadi feel the Huthis have been surprisingly cooperative in NDC preparations up to this point, even arguing that they have been more open to the idea of a “modern civil state” than the country’s dominant political party Islah, composed of tribal and Islamist groups.
But President Hadi has routinely accused the Huthis of accepting Iranian support aimed at destabilizing the transition process. And the group continues to lambast what it perceives to be American and Saudi meddling in Yemeni affairs. Its caustic slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam,” has flooded Sana'a since September.
Issues such as the U.S. drone attacks against al-Qaida militants are not on the agenda because NDC is focused exclusively on domestic issues.
But other tough questions are facing the NDC, including what role the military will play in the state, and what type of political system the new Yemen will base its constitution on.
Although the committee has not ruled out the possibility of allowing more than six months for the NDC to tackle these complex issues, Sayadi says that, until now, “there is no interest in postponing or extending the transition period.”
President Hadi, for his part, has insisted that he will relinquish his post in February 2014, in an apparent gesture to his domestic audience and the international community that the days of power grabs in Yemen have given way to the rule of law.
But a lot could change between now and then. In the meantime, Yemen’s political transition in general and the NDC in particular remain untested experiments in the Arab Spring era.