First published in Canvas: March 14 2013

Though Syria has come to dominate news coverage of the ‘Arab Spring,’ the fate of another Middle Eastern nation – Yemen – now rests precariously in the balance. On March 18th Yemeni leaders will gather together in Sana’a for the National Dialogue Conference, which will define the terms under which a new constitutional committee will operate, and formalise new institutions of governance in preparation for national elections in 2014.

The stakes for the conference are high. While Egypt and Libya emerged  from their conflicts with a modicum of infrastructure and stability, Yemen has been wrecked by three decades of economic and social  mismanagement. Many believe that Yemen would have capitulated altogether if the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) had not brokered the 2011 Riyadh Accord – which allowed  President Ali Abdullah Saleh an ‘honourable’ exit and set a framework for a new political settlement. [1]

The decision to let Saleh live unpunished has rankled with human rights groups and activists who demand closure, but many Yemeni journalists and intellectuals believe that the survival of the nation now rests in the future and the success of the Conference. Compromise – in this instance – promises the establishment of a functioning civil state.

In recent months The Common Forum parties which represented the opposition under Saleh have announced that they will take part in the conference, as have the Huthi rebels. However,  both the Houthis – the Northern Shiite rebel group based in Sa’ada province – and Harak – the southern secessionist movement – have threatened to withdraw from the conference if their demands are not met. Both parties have denounced the presence of members of the former regime, and members of al-Islah – the radical Sunni faction.

The current stance of the southern groups remains vague. Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former President of South Yemen, has insisted on boycotting the Conference, and demands a full secession from the north. [2] This position was not helped by the arrests  of Qassem Askar – the leader of Harak’s radical faction – and Sheikh Hussein bin Shuaib – a prominent southern cleric – in order to prevent an escalation of violence during a demonstration on the first anniversary Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s presidency in late February. [3]

The move drew criticism from Amnesty International and three members of the Dialogue Conference Technical Committee resigned in protest. The Yemeni state drew criticism from Amnesty International for   the use of live ammunition during the protest, and many residents were left wondering what exactly had changed under the new regime and whether the North Yemen authorities were willing to work with the South in any meaningful way. [4]

In the south, there is a widely held belief that their society is fundamentally different to the north – cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and the north tribal and backward. With Aden deteriorating year on year since the 1994 invasion there is an increasing nostalgia for the years of the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) which existed in the post-colonial years. Under the PDRY – South Yemen had functional infrastructure, and its flag continues to fly in the city. [5]

Even if all of the factions were united, there are further hurdles to overcome, the most important being the wording of the draft constitution. Many intellectuals are worried that the involvement of the French in the drafting process will lead to the creation of institutions that are subordinate to the whims of the Western powers. The first three articles stipulate:

  1. “The Republic of Yemen is an Arab, Islamic and independent sovereign state whose integrity is inviolable, and no part of which may be ceded. The people of Yemen are part of the Arab and Islamic nation.”
  2. “Islam is the religion of the state, and Arabic is its official language.”
  3. “The [Islamic] Shariah is the source of all legislation.” [6]

Many are worried that these articles will be amended or annulled in favour of a secular regime or a regime that creates a separation between North and South Yemen that the Yemeni Prime Minister Salem Basindwa clarified that their role was limited to providing expertise and technical support. Yemenis particularly fear a federal regime with conditions imposed by the Harak, rather than by several political parties, which have favoured a regional system which reflects geographic, demographic, finances and natural resources. [7]

The agenda for the Conference itself has also been criticised. ‘The National Long Term Partnership’ discussion has been accused of being a veil for proposed quota systems between the North and the South – a valid criticism given the long standing issue of representatives from Southern governorates being excluded from power in the wake of Yemeni unification in 1990. Possible solutions include introducing a regional quota for the offices of head of state and head of government – both will come from a specific region – yet these are seen by many as contradictory to the rules of democracy and equal opportunity. [8]

Other foreign concerns include the role of Russia in taking the lead in helping to organise the conference, and the role the United States has taken in restructuring the army. While there is an acceptance that foreign expertise can foster conditions amenable to a positive outcome, suspicion is noticeable. Given that the primary motive of the United States is the fight against Al Qaeda, it is not surprising that they have chosen to assist the Yemeni forces, and to an extent, their reforms have been welcomed – forces subordinate to the President for example have  being slashed. Yet Washington continues to step up bombing campaigns against Islamist militants, causing anger in rural areas. [9]

Overall, the mood of the public is hard to gauge – they are generally positive about the conference yet fear that it will do little to improve conditions. Others believe it to be Yemen’s’ last chance to be rescued – if the conference fails, then civil and armed conflict is certain. Those who demand Southern secession are a vocal, if growing, minority, and many Yemenis simply wish to see a functioning state. The United Nations envoy to Yemen, Jamal Bin Omar, stated in a recent press conference:

“The political process has significantly progressed, and power transition is being implemented. However, the situation is still vulnerable and requires that the international community shows growing concern in this critical phase that Yemen is experiencing…the transition process will succeed or we will be going back to zero.” [10]





[4] Ibid.

[5] Yemen : Journey to a land in limbo Financial Times (London, England) – Friday, November 2, 2012




[9] ‘Yemen Still Very Much a Work in Progress’ Financial Times (London, England) – Monday, February 25, 2013



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