By Jihan Anwar
Scheduled to commence on 18 March, the National Dialogue Conference has been perceived to be one of the key elements of Yemen’s transitional process. Yet with parties prepared to boycott the National Dialogue, would-be representatives shunning the idea of participation and groups feeling underrepresented, the question begs itself: what would the consequences be if no dialogue was held?
On his blog, Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana wrote, “…it is difficult to be optimistic that the National Dialogue will even take place.” Bafana notes others’ concerns about the dialogue, including the fact that there is no plan b if the National Dialogue fails, and questioning whether it is better to abort the dialogue than to have a failed one.
The National Dialogue was proposed as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) deal to aid the implementation of the transitional government’s decisions. In accordance with the GCC deal, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been both subjected to intense international pressure and granted immunity from prosecution, submitted his resignation from the presidency.
Many of the same revolutionaries who participated in the protests which provoked Saleh’s removal from power were left feeling that justice had been averted when they learned of the mechanics of the power transfer deal. Compounding this feeling is a perception that Saleh, the current head of the General People’s Congress Party (GPC), has continued to wield influence over the nation’s political scene and decision-making. While in early 2013 the GPC stated that Saleh would not participate, for a number of citizens it is not unreasonable to imagine that as the head of his party, he would be able to influence the dialogue via GPC representatives.
If the National Dialogue turned out to be a failure – or if it wasn’t held at all – some feel that Saleh would be in a position to capitalize on the situation. Yemeni expatriate Dr. Khaled Al-Amerie opined that if the dialogue wasn’t held, remnants of “Saleh’s regime could not only build a family empire, but intentionally create disparities of weath,” leading to a situation in which “a very small minority consumes most of the country’s wealth, leaving the nation to live in poverty.”
Al-Amerie added, “Without the National Dialogue, no matter what Hadi’s government tried, conspiracies would be perceived.”
The GCC Implementation Pact states, “All forces and political actors, including the youth, the Southern Movement, the Houthis, other political parties, civil society representatives and women” should be involved in the National Dialogue.
However, large portions of society – including ‘independent youths’, Houthis and Southern Movement supporters – have been left feeling disenfranchised and left out of decision-making processes. Prominent Southern Movement leaders, for example, have been vocal in expressing that because they weren’t included in the pact’s signing, they feel neither bound to comply with the transitional plan nor interested in participating in the National Dialogue.
The National Dialogue Technical Committee’s ability to manage such a crucial process had been made all the more difficult by the fact that such a large-scale gathering, which will bring together representatives of such disparate backgrounds and interests, has never before taken place in Yemen.
“One of the problems is that in Yemen, we’ve never had a real national dialogue. You can now see what that led the country to,” said Yemeni businessman Munir Daair. “No dialogue means no social contract; no social contract means no democracy or accountability, which would bring us back to the days before the 2011 revolution.”
If the National Dialogue fails to take place, many citizens agree that a negative scenario would undoubtedly follow. Dr. Mohammed Al-Khaled, a structural engineering professor, predicted that such a situation would be disastrous.
“If the National Dialogue doesn’t take place, the risk would not simply be that Yemen would be divided into South and North; it’s that tribes and sub-states would form and, without the presence of a central government, it would be the tribes which would be considered legitimate.”
Musaed Aklan, a water resources researcher, commented, “If there is no dialogue and no cooperation, and if personal and party interests prevail over national interests, we will certainly remain in the same circle of turmoil and violence. The situation would very likely worsen. For now, people are given the hope that at the very least there will be a National Dialogue and their problems will be heard and solutions sought.”
The presence in Yemen of a large portion of southerners who seek secession from the north is particularly troubling for citizens who look towards a large-scale political gathering predicated on the pursuit of national interests.
In media communication student Farooq Al-Doubaibi’s opinion, the only way to be sure of the National Dialogue’s success would be if the Southern Movement’s fall was guaranteed.
For a great many citizens, though, hopes for the National Dialogue’s success, while guarded, are not so severely conditional. Al-Amerie said that for it to succeed, dialogue and decision must be kept separate and compartmentalized, with an overarching focus on ideas and not individuals.
In Daair’s view, for the National Dialogue to be meaningful, it must be transparent and possess the true spirit of debate. “The National Dialogue gives us the opportunity to move Yemen from battles of Kalashnikovs to battles of ideas.”