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Erica Gaston, program officer in USIP's Rule of Law Center, discusses prospects and challenges for Yemen's National Dialogue, and highlights the Institute's past work in civil society.

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Photo courtesy of NY Times

What is the National Dialogue?

Beginning March 18, 2013, the National Dialogue is a 6-month long process in which 565 delegates representing 16 different political parties, factions, or interests, will meet to develop recommendations and decide on a range of issues that go to the heart of the Yemeni state. Items open for discussion range from establishing a new Constitution to deciding the structure of the state and the political system. The National Dialogue was originally scheduled for April 2012, but has subsequently been postponed multiple times in part due to disagreement over the key agenda, delegates, and other preparatory issues. Given the continued shaky footing of the national government since the post-Arab Spring transition, many view success at the National Dialogue as a make-or-break moment for Yemen to continue to move forward and make progress or to fall back into crisis.

What led to the National Dialogue?

For many Yemenis the National Dialogue is the culmination of a demand for change touched off by the Arab Spring protests in early 2011. In Yemen, what eventually started as peaceful youth-led protests following other Arab Spring movements spun into protracted conflict and government shut-down across large parts of Yemen for nearly a year. In November 2011, the most vocal demand of the protest movement was answered when former President Abdullah Ali Saleh stepped down in a process brokered through the Gulf Cooperation Council, and dominated by Yemen’s two main political factions.

The resulting “GCC agreement” as it is widely known, established a transitional government with power shared equally between the main two parties and former Vice President Hadi appointed the interim president. He was then elected in February 2012 in an uncontested national election. Equally important, the GCC agreement laid out a roadmap for the peaceful transition of power, an ambitious two-year transition and reform period whose benchmarks include restoring security and law and order, establishing a new constitution, overhauling major governmental sectors and services, and beginning the process of transitional justice (however undefined). The central vehicle for many of these reforms to be set into motion according to the GCC Agreement is the National Dialogue.

Why is it important?

The National Dialogue is important in part because of the sheer breadth of issues that will be discussed (and that have largely hung in limbo for the last year). Everything from a transitional justice process to the direction for reforming key institutions is supposed to be decided upon or guided by what the delegates decide. Even more important is the depth of the questions at issue. The fundamental political bargain is on the table, including whether Yemen will remain one country or divide into two.

While the transition agreement put a brake on 10 months of escalating violence following the Arab Spring protests, there was neither time nor political space to resolve the many complex and long-standing political issues that had helped fuel the crisis and might hamper future stability. The National Dialogue process was viewed as one of the key mechanisms to continue working through these issues. This includes how to address longstanding calls for the southern part of Yemen to secede, or at least to have much greater autonomy, perhaps leading to a more federal system in Yemen. It also includes how to respond to the Houthi rebellion in the northern Sa’ada region, factions of which have opposed (often through armed violence) the Yemeni state since 1962. An equally problematic (if a slightly less existential threat) is the balance not only between the two main political parties in Yemen, but between the many key political stakeholders in Yemen.

In the last year the status quo political balance has proven largely unworkable. Infighting between the two main parties has frustrated national-level progress on key reforms, and led to political bloodletting and unhealthy levels of competition in institutions at a local level.

Meanwhile, continued power jostling by major political figures (including former President Saleh) has been responsible for major security incidents at a local level across Yemen and keeps Yemen on the brink of instability. Unless the National Dialogue is able to broker a more stable political compromise between all these different factions, Yemen risks falling backwards into open conflict and instability.

How is USIP involved in Yemen?

USIP is not involved directly in the National Dialogue, but like many national and international organizations has been involved with civil society and government actors in thinking through some of the issues that arise in the National Dialogue.

In the past year, USIP has held several workshops and roundtables to share its comparative experience with justice and security reform for countries in transition. Most recently, USIP released preliminary findings from a major research study designed to inform some of the thinking of actors engaged in reform processes at the National Dialogue, and outside of it. The research provided a snapshot of how the transition process had impacted local level security and justice conditions in four governorates four governorates that span the political, social, and economic divide in Yemen – Taiz, Aden, Marib, and Abyan.

USIP’s research found that while there was still optimism that change might result from the National Dialogue or other national transition processes, many of the changes that had happened so far appear confined to Sanaa, with little impact for improving long-standing justice or security concerns in much of the country. Unless national-level reforms (including on all of the issues discussed at the National Dialogue) begin to trickle down and change basic quality of life conditions in the governorates, the transition will not be perceived as a success.

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