IF THE claims of Yemen’s government and its foreign backers are to be believed, a “new Yemen” is being forged in a smart hotel perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of Sana’a, the capital. Since mid-March, a diverse gathering of 565 Yemenis drawn from an array of different movements and ideologies has met for six hours a day, five days a week.
This is Yemen’s much vaunted “national dialogue conference”. By the autumn the participants are supposed to have laid out a list of grievances and reforms, together with recommendations on a new constitution and system of government.
This grand affair was almost an afterthought to the internationally-endorsed deal signed in November 2011 that finally secured the removal of Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years as president and nearly a year of street protests. But Mr Saleh’s successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, now pins his hopes on the conference. If it fails, he says, civil war could ensue. An exaggeration? “It’s not true to say that the only alternative is civil war,’” says Yaser al-Awadhi, a member of parliament who represent Mr Saleh’s old party at the conference. “But this is a historical opportunity that will not come again.”
On paper each delegate is equal, the votes of youth activists and feminists counting as much as those of ministers and Islamists. Many controversial issues have been broached, with “red lines” being crossed. Backers of the Houthi rebels, who hold sway over much of the north after fighting against the rulers in Sana’a for most of the past decade, mingle freely with members of the government.
More recently, nearly two months after the conference began, the initial soapbox speeches have given way to more intimate and intense deliberations. Delegates have been divided into nine working groups, ranging from development to the question of Yemen’s formerly independent south. The groups are due to come together again in a full session in June.
Though some powerful southern secessionist leaders and factions have boycotted the conference, it has gone better than expected. But some nonetheless detect an air of unreality. “There are two Yemens,” says a delegate, “the Yemen inside the conference and the Yemen outside it.”
For many in impoverished Yemen, the dialogue seems an expensive distraction, amid a moribund economy, high unemployment, and the repeated sabotage of the nation’s electricity infrastructure, which plunges the capital and other cities into 20-hour blackouts.
Still, the country may have already benefited from the breadth of political participation. At the same time, a recent military reshuffle, in which one of Mr Saleh’s sons was sacked from his command, seems to have been bloodlessly achieved. Fears linger, however, that the old guard might yet seek to block reforms and to keep their hands on the levers of power, especially military ones, behind the scenes. And in the end money and weapons rather than votes in a newfangled de facto parliament may still determine Yemen’s future. All the same, many Yemenis hope that the big conference may pave the way to something better.
Source: The Economist