Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) has gathered once more, this time for its final act—or, at least, that’s what Yemenis and the NDC’s international backers anxiously hope. Early on in this session, the NDC issued a statement calling for an immediate end to the sectarian clashes between Houthi rebels and Salafist militants in Dammaj, a town in the northwestern province of Saada. It was a clear reminder of how pressingly an agreement on Yemen’s political future is needed.
The NDC’s detractors are numerous. They point fingers at a long list of problems, including the dominant position of the old elites based in the country’s capital, Sana’a, during the whole dialogue process.
The NDC was not without its flaws. Its agenda was very ambitious—perhaps overambitious—from the outset. The various working groups were asked to, among other things, draft a new constitution; address the root problems of the Saada conflict in the North, as well as the Southern problem, and present ways forward on both fronts; discuss the reform of the army and the security apparatus; create a plan for sustainable economic development; investigate the status of vulnerable groups; and work to ensure that human rights abuses and breaches of international law have no place in Yemen. Arguably, it was too much to be accomplished in only nine months. Inevitably, some topics on the agenda were prioritized over others, which frustrated those whose primary concerns were marginalized.
Despite the initial unrealistic expectations of the dialogue and what it could achieve, the very fact that all segments of Yemeni society were present and had a voice in the process is an accomplishment in itself in a nation with challenges like the massive ones facing Yemen.
The NDC was set up in a period of great upheaval and instability, and conditions remained largely unchanged while it did its work. There were constant campaigns of civil disobedience in the South, casualties caused by sectarian violence in the North (and even in Sana’a), clashes between security forces and Al-Qaeda, and systematic assassinations of mid- and high-ranking security officials. There were also regular attempts to disrupt the process from forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
It is easy to ignore how bad things could have turned out had the NDC derailed completely or not materialized in the first place. The deal signed in Riyadh in November 2011 by Yemen’s many conflicting parties, which set out a two-year-long transition period, showed Yemen a new direction.
As Dr. Mohammed Ali Marim, the chair of the State-Building Working Group in the NDC, put it via email, “I believe that the most important success of the National Dialogue has been preserving the pride and stability of Yemen despite the difficult circumstances.”
Inescapably, the Southern issue and the related questions over unity, federation or separation took center stage. The creation in September of the “8+8” sub-committee to manage the North–South negotiations gave the NDC new life. It happened at a time of widespread rumors that the delegates of Al-Hirak (also known as the Southern Mobility Movement) would not return to the negotiation table, a form of protest against the NDC’s neglect of their cause.
From then on, Northern resistance (especially from the General People’s Conference, Yemen’s ruling political party, and the Sunni Al-Islah Party) to the idea of a federal state faded alongside the Southerners’ realization that they would not get away with a return to the two Yemens that existed before 1990. In fact, Al-Hirak’s insistence on separation can be read as a strategy of deliberately aiming above what they could realistically secure to actually get what they truly want: a far bigger say in their own affairs and a more equitable share of resources. Despite the public divisions among Al-Hirak leaders around their positions in the NDC and on the federation issue, a general consensus around the federation model has already emerged.
All the initial hype about Southern independence ignored the fact that many Southerners do not want to break with the North. Several prominent figures who are against Southern independence were actually born in the South, including President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and Prime Minister Mohamed Salim Basindawa. There is a sense of national identity, despite all the misgovernment, corruption and patronage that have become so typical of Yemen’s political life.
The key question now is to determine how many regions will form the federation and which governorates will be included in each region. Most representatives oppose the idea of a two-region federation of North and South based on the 1990 borders, which they fear would open the way for Southern secession spearheaded by Al-Hirak and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Instead, a federation with four or five regions is gaining ground. The push by representatives of the eastern governorates of Shabwah, Hadhramout and Al-Mahrah, formerly constituent parts of South Yemen, for the creation of an eastern region separate from the South also works against the idea of a two-region federation.
Although an essential step in the process, an agreement among the delegates to the NDC on the federation and a new constitution will not in itself guarantee a smooth political transition. How the ordinary Yemeni citizen will react to the resolutions coming out of the dialogue is an open question. Above all, the federation option has not dispelled the doubts about the capacity and integrity of the weak Yemeni state to have a positive presence in areas where it is accused of neglect or misgovernment.