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Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was convened on 18 March 2013, with delegates from diverse factions of Yemeni society.
The allocation of seats in the NDC, a contentious issue long before the dialogue began, has been arranged in favour of established political parties and traditional actors, who were assigned almost half of the seats. Only two newly founded parties (the Salafi party al-Rashad and the tribal Justice and Development Party) have been assigned seats. None of the newly established youth parties was selected; independent youth were assigned only seven percent of the seats.
|General People’s Congress (GPC) and allies||112|
|Joint Meeting Parties (JMP)||137 (Islah 50, Socialist Party37)|
|al-Rashad; Justice and Development Party (new parties)||14|
|Independents||120 (women, youth, civil society each 40)|
|President Hadi’s list||62|
Source: SWF Berlin
Despite their small representation, Yemeni youth, who had been the drivers of mass protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have been particularly outspoken during the negotiations, addressing taboo and sensitive subjects, such as the immunity law. They have also demanded an investigation into Yemeni and U.S. airstrikes and their impact on civilians. The dialogue also incorporated other voices that had previously been marginalized, such as women and other segments of civil society.
Against a backdrop of polarized discussions within the NDC, continuing terrorist attacks, U.S. drone strikes and protests outside the conference, the NDC made progress. In July 2013, the policy recommendations of six of nine working groups were passed in the NDC’s general assembly. Months after the September deadline, the working groups had finished their recommendations, and the dialogue’s participants had agreed the principle of changing the republic into a federal state. Precisely what kind of federal system would be introduced (two regions or more) was left for further debate. The subcommittee of the NDC that was to determine the number of regions by the end of December 2013 failed to reach consensus, and Hadi had to appoint another committee. While most NDC members agreed to the formation of the new committee, Houthis, members of al-Haq, and the Socialist Party have opposed it. The NDC officially ended on 25 January 2014, after the conference approved its final document, the Solutions and Guarantees Document. It approved federalism as Yemen’s new state structure and extended President Hadi’s term for a year. Hadi is to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, which will be put to a referendum.
10 February 2014, a Presidential committee agreed that Yemen will be a federal state, comprising six regions: four in the North (Azal, Saba, Janad, Tahama) and two in the South (Aden and Hadhramawt).
The issue of the South
The most difficult and immediate challenge, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), is the issue of the south of the country. Political assassinations, increasing activity by al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, and U.S. drone strikes have worsened the security situation. In addition, a deteriorating economy has led to dissatisfaction with the transitional government among southerners, who are represented by the Hiraak movement. According to the ICG, President Hadi has, since taking office, focused on rearranging the power balance in Sanaa, trying to restrict the powers of Saleh and his supporters, instead of dealing with grievances in the south. This has led Hiraak activists to bolster their movement for independence. These activists have increasingly rejected any deal with the central government—as they do not accept the existence of the republic—and, as a result, they also rejected the NDC and boycotted the talks. From the start, this has caused an inadequate representation of southerners at the NDC, and only a small group of moderate Hiraak representatives joined the dialogue. According to the ICG, however, their grassroots influence is limited. From the beginning, thousands of southern separatists protested outside the NDC’s venue in Sanaa.
How to devolve power away from the capital Sanaa to regional and local authorities has been one of the most important and sensitive questions to be dealt with in the dialogue. A federal state is preferred by regions outside the capital, which have long been neglected by the central government. The Hiraak, initially proponents of the independence of South Yemen based on pre-1990 borders, have demanded a two-region federal state, while traditional powers (among them the GPC and Islah) have pursued a federal system with four or five regions. Although the GPC and Islah have publicly accepted the idea of devolving power from Sanaa to the regions, many Yemenis believe that their leaders, particularly Saleh (head of the GPC) and Ali Mohsen (Islah), have been working in the background, against the idea. Saleh and Mohsen and their parties have an interest in maintaining the status quo of Yemen’s centralized state and have much to lose by diffusing power away from Sanaa. With economic activity, decisions on oil and gas deals, and internationally financed projects emanating from Sanaa, they risk losing control over economic privileges and access.
According to a Yemeni observer, the drawback of the federal option is that the weakness of the central government will be decentralized. He expects that the new local authorities will be under the influence of local sheikhs who will not necessarily cooperate with the central government.
The dialogue’s progress, and along with it the success of Yemen’s transition, has been hampered by several factors beyond vested interests. The powers that sponsored the transition (the ‘Friends of Yemen’), including the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have supported diverse interests: the GCC agreement granted amnesty to Saleh—to the dismay of those who had protested against his rule—while promoting the political transition that aims to address Yemen’s many problems. U.S. drone strikes, as part of a joint U.S.-Yemeni anti-terrorism campaign, have added to feelings of insecurity and increased anti-American sentiment among Yemenis. Human Rights Watch reported in October 2013 that targeted killings by the U.S., including drone strikes, have killed civilians, in violation of international law.
Iran meanwhile, has been pursuing its interests by supporting Shiite Houthi rebels who recently advanced on the capital Sana’a from the North. Since October 2013, Houthis have been attacking areas south of Sa’ada province, their stronghold. Using heavier and more sophisticated weapons than before, they defeated many Sunni (Salafi) fighters on the way.
Although the GCC agreement and ensuing transition have averted civil war, the humanitarian crisis continues. Critics of the NDC have pointed out that the issues discussed at the dialogue have nothing to do with the grievances that led many Yemenis to take to the streets in 2011: lack of economic opportunity, high unemployment, high cost of living, corruption, nepotism, the weak rule of law, and the abuse of power by Saleh. As Saleh has been granted immunity from prosecution, activists have complained that the transition process has perpetuated control of the country by the political elite, without adequately meeting the demands of the 2011 uprising.