Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Yemen’s Great Expectations

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement was considered as the best option for Yemen to transfer power "peacefully" and save it from slipping into a civil war and a "bloody Syria scenario. Many discontented Yemenis had no option but to accept it and had high hopes in a National Dialogue Conference that would lay the road map for Yemen's future. There is so much at stake for Yemenis and the "Friends of Yemen" who backed the GCC agreement, all of whom would not want to see it fail.

International backers of the GCC agreement which laid out the mechanism for the transfer of power in Yemen, ending president Ali Abdullah Saleh 33 year rule and outlining the phases of the 2-year transitional period, are eager to present Yemen as a successful model for the Arab spring. Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference has been described as “the most genuine, transparent and inclusive deliberate process the Arab region has ever witnessed” according to the United Nation Secretary General’s Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal BenOmar who has been shuttling between New York and Sana’a to facilitate the conference.

"With dialogue we make the future" is the motto of Yemen's National Dialogue Conference, which consists of 565 delegates representing different factions of Yemen’s political spectrum, including the marginalized youth activists and women, civil society representatives, Huthis, and Hiraki Southern movement. It formed into 9 working groups to forge a national consensus for Yemen’s plan for the future, draft its constitution and pave the way to the 2014 presidential elections.

Many Yemenis disagree about its acclaimed success so far and have grown wary and disappointed with the process. There is a general feeling of ambiguity and apprehension surrounding the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference among Yemenis, which is very different in comparison to the hopeful vibes projected by the UN special advisor and in the statements by the "Friends of Yemen".

Originally set to begin in mid November, Yemen’s National Dialogue finally started in March 18, 2013. It had been scheduled to end six months later on September 18, yet further delays, disputes and withdraws caused it to be delayed even further by “one, two, or three months, but not more” as Mr. Abu-Baker Al-Qirbi, Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, was quoted saying.  In fact, the National Conference continues to drag on struggling to overcome the challenge of appeasing Yemen’s political elite while the human living conditions of millions of Yemeni citizens continues to deteriorate.  

Each of the members residing in the capital Sana’a are compensated $100 per day, those residing outside it are compensated $180 per day while sessions are being held in the five star Movenpick hotel. All of which raises speculation regarding the delegate’s, enjoying such benefits, commitment and eagerness to have the NDC end anytime soon. The apparent reluctance in achieving a consensus and the evident delay in the decision-making has broken confidence in the process altogether.  

Six months later, many issues discussed among the various working groups are not yet finalized, such as setting 18 years as the legal marriage age, the 30% quota for women in the three branches of government and the most challenging southern issue remains unresolved. There is evidently a lot of friction and resistance in the conference between existing partisan, political, tribal elite who are safeguarding their own interests and the 40 independent youth who are genuinely seeking to bring about real change for the country. The discontented Huthis and Hiraki factions frequent withdrawals, the last one during the plenary session prior to the Eid break make it unclear whether they will continue or cause the dialogue to fail and what will the final structure be of the suggested federal state to solve the Southern issue.

Just as the National Dialogue has been turbulent, Yemen’s transitional period has not been as smooth as expected nor hoped for. Over the past two years, Yemen has witnessed an unprecedented record of military assassinations, car bombings, destruction of oil pipe lines and electricity cables, kidnapping of foreigners and Yemenis, in addition to an increase in US drone strikes. Power outages as a result have been reported for days rather than hours in many parts of the country adding more obscurity to the challenging living conditions.

The political process and focus of the negotiation in the National Dialogue Conference moving forward overshadowed the security situation, humanitarian issues and economic reality that Yemen is undergoing.  Nearly half of Yemen’s 24 million population (10.5 million) do not have enough food, most (13.1 million) do not have access to safe water and sanitation, 431,000 are displaced and nearly half of Yemen’s children under five years (2 million) are stunted and 1 million are acutely malnourished. Yemenis live on $2 a day, illiteracy rate of both sexes (15 years and above) is almost 40%unemployment among the youth is at 40% and the country ranks last at 136 in the Global gender gap, 156 out of 176 n the Transparency International 2013 Corruption Index and 6th in the 2013 Failed States Index.

Besides the overzealous outcomes hoped from the NDC in resolving national issues resulting from 30 years of conflict, mismanagement and corruption, Yemen is also faced with the challenge of restoring political security and economic stability which is required to improve the lives of millions of Yemenis who struggle daily due to the lack of access to food, water, electricity, fuel, health services, education and employment. Yemenis are looking hopefully to the NDC to improve their lives, without any further delays.

Some observers consider the NDC a failure so far, while others feel there is so much at stake now that if it does not succeed and without an alternative plan B, the country risks slipping into a civil war. Yet the NDC is not only faced with many challenges to reach its targets, once it concludes, the real challenge will be in passing the recommend laws and agreements in a GPC (General People’s Conference, Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’ s ruling party) and Islah (Conservative Party) dominated parliament. Accountability, political commitment and a strong government are needed to implement the desired outcomes. It is therefore not in Yemen’s interest to have any further delays since the road to change is still arduous and long and many Yemenis are losing patience in the process.

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