In mid-march 2013 Yemen began it’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a collection of 565 individuals representing various groups across Yemenites, partially in thanks to the endorsement of the UN Security Council. This conference will continue for several months while participants attempt to figure out the future in post-Arab Spring Yemen. The National Dialogue is unique among Arab Spring countries, being the closest transitional mechanism to democracy in the Middle East.
Alongside the political debates however, there continues to be military operations against Al Qaeda in the south of Yemen, including a major offensive launched on June 5 that pushed more than 10,000 troops (including helicopters and jet fighters) in the Hadramawt. Alongside domestic Yemenite operations. The United States is also fighting in Yemen, including drone strikes in May 2013 that killed seven suspected Al-Qaeda operatives. The security of Yemen’s future is currently in flux.
The NDC is accused of being distant from reality by critics. In particular, Atiaf z. Alwazir put forth a strong rebuttal to a series of op-ed columns by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times that praised the “Yemeni Way” as a model for other Arab countries. Alwazir is right to point out that the Yemen Model has yet to do anything. One problem is that many citizens feel that the NDC is merely talk, and therefore buy-in is currently low at the time of writing. Additionally, there is little indication if the NDC is addressing the calls for autonomy that previously threatened to rip Yemen apart.
Despite these critiques, Friedman is right to be optimistic. The social sciences show that this Dialogue’s scope is more inclusive and likely to succeed than many other transitional devices, especially in contrast to those fully imposed and administered by international actors. The fact that this Dialogue is being driven by Yemenites themselves, and not directed by international actors, is a huge step forward that avoids the pitfalls of many historical peace processes.
Another key difference is highlighted by the Economist. This dialogue puts participants on equal footing; civil society and activists are equal to government ministers and high-level bureaucrats. Additionally, the article acknowledges that the Conference is crossing many “red lines” and controversial issues being addressed by participants across the board. While the Dialogue has yet to concretely achieve anything, it is fair to say that it is symbolic of a country ready for change and is already achieving some social gains politically, shifting politics from a strict members-only realm to a wider democratic forum.
If Yemen is even moderately successful, the national dialogue will help other countries. It certainly should not serve as a clear-cut model for other situations. However, it has been clear from other cases that inclusive dialogue helps reduce violence. More importantly, such dialogues are vital in constitutional debates and can sometimes serve to put an effective end to hostilities between polities. Whether or not democratic processes will be a positive step in the Arab Spring’s long-term aftermath is being put to the test in Yemen.
Progress is being made in Yemen’s politics and security, but it is a long road ahead. The National Dialogue is a positive step for Yemen and for transitioning countries everywhere. While it may not be perfect, it may enable progress. It certainly follows professional policy advice for strengthening peace processes, such as inclusivity in negotiations and enabling local voices, without alienating international powers. In summary, I quote Julie Fisher Melton: “Security stems from democratization ‒ the process offers hope, even when far from democracy.”
Isaac Caverhill-Godkewitsch is a Research and Communications Intern at the Security Governance Group.