By: Fernando Carvajal
University of Exeter
Many observers continue to express their pessimism toward the two-week old dialogue process. Often the line of criticism focuses on the absence of an alternative, a plan B, based on continued obstruction by various political elements and mismanagement on the part of international actors. A major issue contributing to increased pessimism, outside Yemen, is the fact that the southern issue is the ‘red line’ and no party has been able to produce confidence-building measures to encourage the street to give Dialogue an opportunity.
There are a number of actors who carry much of the blame for the degree of pessimism outside Yemen and growing dissent inside. From the highest officials within the Unity Government, to mid-level party loyalists trying to survive, to in-country representatives of exiled officials and grass-roots mobilizers nationwide. Each faction in north or south Yemen simply continues to play traditional politics of elite-elite negotiations. At no point has any party actually bothered to engaged the street, which originally launched the 2007 Hirak (Southern Movement) protests, December 2010 demonstrations against Saleh’s unilateral amendments and the 3 February 2011 post-rally protests outside Sana’a University. All shows of force, whether by al-Houthi, Islah/Ali Mushin/al-Ahmar, Hirak or GPC has focused on their survival vis-à-vis each other, not the street.
Unfortunately, the street has also contributed to its own marginalization and increased the profile of politically bankrupt officials. The ‘liberal’ youth of 2011 have either suffered from political fatigue or simply realized the limits to their empowerment. The new southern youth generation has not lost its own fervor and natural disdain for Sana’a’s negligence over recent years. But southern youth have naturally been co-opted by financially strong political actors with their own aims. The street in the south is lead by symbols of the past, which empower its demands but offer no practical solutions to its present crisis. The ‘revolutionary’ youth did not need Islah in 2011 nor did southern youth need exiled officials in 2009, to oppose Saleh’s regime. But acknowledged limitations on the part of youth nationwide, inexperience, lack of access to financial resources and abandonment even by ‘defectors’, have naturally forced youth activism to gravitate toward political ‘power’. The street also acknowledges the ‘lesser evil’ approach in dealing with political officials “supporting their cause”, youth claim the street will also remove the old guard step by step. It is noteworthy to recall Change Square protesters said a new constitution would be ready ‘after Saleh’s removal’, but nothing materialized, and that youth also claimed they would remove Gen. Ali Muhsin ‘after Saleh’s removal’, and yet the general stands firm against any moves to remove him from power, never mind the country.
The Obvious Alternative
Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi failed to capitalize on momentum from his own rise to the presidency in 2012. This was both due to his reluctance to reach out to the people, youth in particular, as well as the overt interference by international actors who failed to allow President Hadi alone to take credit for the transition. Growing antagonism by Yemenis against the Group of 10 embassies and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative itself has much to do with the arrogance displaying the role of international actors publicly any chance they get.
The initial mistake by the international community obstructing Hadi’s prominence after the 21 February 2012 election was the branding of the electoral process by UNDP and the EU. All billboards and election marketing nationwide carried the logos of UNDP and the EU, then subsequent conferences such as the first Woman’s Conference and the first Human Rights Conference hosted in Sana’a by the Ministry of Human Rights (MHR) also exhibited the logos of all international sponsors. The one-man election failed to maintain the momentum of ‘change’ allowing the people to blame the international community for the lack of progress on the democratic process in Yemen. The failed outcome of conferences hosted by MRH was also blamed on international sponsors as result of perceived incompetence and unmet goals. Both conferences ended in fights and nothing has come out of the events contributing to the National Dialogue process.
If President Hadi’s legacy is to include a success story after the transition period, or if he hopes to succeed in extending his presidential term, he must engage the street directly. His political capital, mainly with the international community, presents Hadi with an opportunity to abandon horizontal elite-elite politics and engage a top-down strategy to regain the trust of the street. It does not take a genius analyst to realize Hadi’s priority should be to create a gap between the street, whether Houthi, Islahi, Hiraki or GPC, and the leadership inside or outside Yemen obstructing the process. Leaders want to position themselves further to gain or regain their piece of the pie, neglecting the reality on the ground and needs of the general public. President Hadi risks being vilified, or at minimum completely ignored, by history as in the case of all other ‘interim’ presidents of the twentieth century.
The Crisis is not the Dialogue
President Hadi should realize the crisis obstructing all political processes lie out in the street, among the unemployed and disenfranchised population. Yemen is still a Jumhuriyya system, based on the mobilizing of the masses for political aims. The president’s missed opportunities came the day before the election and then the day after the election. Then, Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi had the opportunity to speak directly to the electorate and encouraged them to exercise their right. The day after president-elect should have personally expressed his gratitude to voters who now constitutionally entrusted him with the transition process and harnessed their support. He did neither, and instead deepened the gap between him and the people when he pre-recorded his Unification Day speech, while his 14 October speech also failed to narrow the gap with southern people.
It is not only the international community who has neglected the deepening economic and humanitarian crises in Yemen. The government has failed to address the matter at all levels. No government ministry has exerted any efforts to address the crisis of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in northern provinces (after four years) or that of IDPs in Abyan (after nearly ten months). Much was promised for Abyan after Operation Golden Sword, but IDPs are still homeless in Aden or suffering back home in Abyan. We should recall Yemeni businessmen promised millions of Yemeni rials in June 2012 for Abyan’s recovery, none has arrived.
Although the Islamic Development Bank announced a US$52 million grant to Yemen following the latest Friends of Yemen meeting in London to address youth unemployment, it will take a while for this program to be implemented. The government had plenty of opportunities in 2012 to address the economic crisis, but failed to deliver through the year. President Hadi had an opportunity to obtain funding from abroad to finance government jobs for southerners and northerners in order to gain favor with unemployed university graduates. Prime Minister BaSundwa’s Cabinet also had the opportunity to exploit investment opportunities from abroad, at minimum the government had an opportunity to bring back companies that closed their doors in 2011 due to the political crisis.
There is no trust in government institutions or political processes in Yemen today. A year was wasted by the transitional government, which failed to circumvent infighting to engage the population since December 2011. Many ministers opted for photo opportunities with media but none organized town hall meetings in the north or south to feel the pulse of the street. Abd al-Malek al-Houthi may have achieved some economic success in parts of Sa’dah, but has failed to produce a national program, allowing criticism against him from people who say al-Houthi is only interested in an autonomous area in Sa’dah. Hirak has only succeeded at making secession a central issue for negotiations. No southern leader has presented the people of the south with a plan for the ‘day after’. While many speak of Aden as the jewel of the south, there is no plan to revive the international hub, while neighboring competitors such as Djibouti already have a five-year plan to invest over US$5 billion. Youth in southern provinces complain of northern economic dominance, but none within Hirak have proposed an economic plan to ensure youth will improve their condition soon after secession, never mind a road map for representation within a Federal entity.
Hirak, under its various factions, is presently the only group claiming access to the street. The older generation of in-country leaders claims the street drives Hirak, giving factions public credibility and leverage, as opposed to political parties and even al-Houthi. This is the reason why the southern issue is the top point of contention prior to the start of the National Dialogue conference, and it will be the issue obstructing any progress in the weeks to come. Without Hirak there is no Dialogue, and the street in south Yemen has already made this clear. Mistakes by Islah and GPC have strengthened Hirak, and President Hadi’s failure to connect with the south, in fear of northern leaders who can mobilize much larger crowds (the south has less than one-fifth of the national population), has alienated him from what should have been a natural constituency.
If any hopes for change after 2011 are to survive in Yemen, there must be a shift in political engagement strategies this year. Also, the international community must learn to take a backseat during this process, remaining off the headlines and simply supporting the process from behind closed doors. The Dialogue process must go beyond UN Special Envoy Jamal Ben Omar and the Group of 10, it must be owned by the president, and the people, not just parties, must contribute to the end result. Individuals are still fighting to be part of the conference, but offer no contribution to solving the crisis. Other political actors still place much of their expectations on international actors to actually provide solutions to the conflict. People already fear a number of spoilers will participate simply to derail the Dialogue or prolong the process in order to create opportunities for positioning to influence the outcome itself. In a post-Arab Spring environment, nothing is settled behind closed doors and a mere soap opera process will simply result in increased disenfranchisement and dissent at the popular level.