Dialogue, against fear

Published: September 9, 2013 - 13:16 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 02:06

There is still hope floating in this ‘forbidden land, a dangerous place’

Ash Narain Roy Sanaa/Taiz/ Mukalla (Yemen) 

Known as the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden, and once a ‘safe haven’ for the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki, US-born cleric and dreaded Al Qaeda leader (killed in drone attacks) and Al-Qaeda’s number two, Nasir al Wuhayshi, Yemen is “little more than a code word for bizarre terror plots”. The lawlessness which is tearing apart its social fabric is neither wanton, nor is it without explanation. The State’s writ no longer runs in major parts of the country. Thanks to more than 50 years of abysmally bad governance and low human development index, Yemen has been at the bottom of the international totem pole. Given the active presence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it now carries the additional burden of becoming a “forbidden land, a dangerous place”.

Horror is part of life for most Yemenis. In many parts, blind hatred rules. This hatred, often towards the unknown, is unfathomable and alive, spitting fire and smoke, celebrating relentless blood-lust. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, beyond any sense of proportion or shame, it sometimes veers into the surreal. It is a system of fear where nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven. As one perceptive commentator told me, “When those you fear need your favour, it is your turn to make them fear you.”

However, all is not lost. Of all the countries which have witnessed the Arab Spring, Yemen is the poorest; it is also the one with the most developed political landscape. The ‘government of national unity’ was formed in December 2012. Since mid-March,  almost 565 Yemenis, cutting across various movements, groupings and ideologies, have been engaged in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to formulate a genuine power-sharing formula. Indeed, Tunisia, once considered a model among fledgling Arab Spring democracies, is facing its worst crisis since Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled after a wave of uprisings across the region.

The 25 million or so Yemenis represent about 40 per cent of the population of the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is of prime importance to global marine shipping lanes. For a country that is facing a slide back into political collapse and a possible civil war, the stakes in the NDC are high. Some dismiss it as an expensive distraction for a polity rendered dysfunctional; others see it as a possible framework for the region.

Yemen is far from emerging as the Arab Spring’s role model. But, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says, “In its own messy ways, Yemen is doing what all the other Arab awakening countries failed to do — have a serious, broad-based national dialogue…” The NDC is the closest any of the Arab countries swept by the Arab Spring in 2011 has come to a peaceful, broad-based transition from despotism to democracy. The dialogue process may be imperfect, messy. But, sometimes, it is better to travel than to arrive.

Horror is integral to most Yemenis. In many parts, blind hatred rules

Yemen needs peace, and to make the peace durable — even by Yemen’s standards —a government, acceptable and tolerated by the bulk of the people, is essential. Clearly, such a government can only be installed through compromise and dialogue.

To be fair to President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, he has taken an independent line on many issues. His government has largely succeeded in ousting the AQAP from Abyan and Shabwa governorates. He has weakened the hold of his predecessor and his family over the armed forces. Hadi has forced former autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son to retire as head of the republican guard. He has curtailed the powers of Saleh’s main rival, General Ali Mohsen. While formal political power and many government institutions remain in the hands of the old elite, the overall balance of power in the country has shifted from its capital, Sanaa.

Despite reservations about the NDC in certain quarters and a boycott by southern separatist Hirak movement leaders, there is realization that the status quo is unsustainable. Yemenis know that the only alternative to dialogue is civil war. The good thing is that broad international support is driving the dialogue process forward.

It’s encouraging that Yemen is no stranger to national dialogue. There is a tradition and culture of dialogue and consensus-building which is absent in other Arab countries. As Jamal Benomar, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, says, “This is the first time in history that a body that is inclusive, with all representatives from Yemeni society, got together over the organization, management and running of the national dialogue process.” Many call it the beginning of “new politics”. Instead of the politics of closed-door meetings, adds Benomar, “what we see here is a very transparent, inclusive process”.

What is unique is the negotiated transition. It came about through negotiations and compromise between the opposing sides in the conflict. The international community has played a supportive role, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries — backed by the UN Security Council.

The NDC is working through specialized committees. The new Constitution is being drafted and a general election will be held in February 2014. The task is formidable. There is a wide range of demands and expectations from various groups. The youth movement which sustained the protests against the Saleh regime has different hopes. The southern group is divided between those for whom a return to independent statehood for South Yemen is the only option, and others who would be happy with a measure of autonomy in a federal set-up.

A major problem is Saleh’s vice-like grip on all institutions. Many of the governors are still loyal to him. Yemen is fragmented into personal fiefdoms. Almost all top military commanders are Saleh’s blood relatives. The military is neither professional nor is its reach truly national. It is plagued by personal, tribal and regional loyalties. Yemen has only seen the politics of patronage and rulers know how to co-opt the opposition. 

Women played a critical role during the protests. They came to the protest square — ‘Change Square’ — in large numbers. The face of the revolution was Tawakkul Karman, a young journalist who led the protests for press freedom. She was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Interestingly, during our workshops in North/South Yemen, the participants enumerated the Nobel Prize as one of the big achievements of recent years. Women’s improved status too figured among the main tasks.

‘I want the world to know Yemeni women rock!’

During the mass upheavals of 2011, Yemeni women had even burnt their veils to protest against the Saleh regime’s brutal crackdown. Says Nadia al Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times:“I want the world to know Yemeni women rock!... There are more Yemeni women in positions of power than ever before, and the good news is that this is not seen as unusual in the community.”

Though women constitute only 20 per cent of the labour force, the unemployment rate among women is much lower than men. Some men are heard complaining that women are taking away their jobs.

Yemenis are a proud and independent people who resent interference by big brother Saudi Arabia; also, Iran. The resentment against Saudi Arabia is fuelled by the three-metre-high, 1,800 km- long fence that it has been building since 2004. There have been regular demonstrations against the fence. Some 30,000 Yemenis have been deported recently by the Saudis.

Al-Qaeda is still well-entrenched in certain regions. From time to time, it succeeds in targetting its “enemies”. It is somewhat rattled by the NDC which it describes as a “trap”; those participating in the national dialogue are branded as “enemies of sharia” and “supporters of the devil”.

Besides, security remains the biggest challenge. Wherever we travelled, we were surrounded by gunmen. On a night journey, we seemed to be under siege.

However, there is optimism and goodwill about the future. As UN envoy Benomar puts it, “The current roadmap for transition is only one step in what would be a long and difficult road forward.”   

The writer is Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi.


There is still hope floating in this ‘forbidden land, a dangerous place’
Ash Narain Roy Sanaa/Taiz/ Mukalla (Yemen) 

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