National Dialogue to make or break Yemen | Globalization | DW | 08.04.2013
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National Dialogue to make or break Yemen

Turmoil-stricken Yemen tries to reconcile its many factions in a "National Dialogue" tasked with preparing democratic elections in 2014. But Yemen's youth, instrumental in toppling the old regime, are skeptical.

Red, white and black billboards advertising Yemen's "National Dialogue" line the busy streets of the capital Sanaa. The signs point to a Facebook page, Twitter handle, YouTube channel and a website address. The aim of the extensive social media presence is to make the six-month conference - tasked with writing a new constitution, unifying the country, and preparing for democratic elections in February 2014 - transparent and participatory.

The dialogue kicked off on March 18 and is another step in the UN-backed agreement that saw the removal of former President Abdullah Ali Saleh, the installation of a transitional government, and an end to large-scale demonstrations in 2011. More than 500 representatives from different political parties, regions, tribes and religions, and a handful of women and young people are participating in the conference.

Topics such as governance, southern separation, armed group movements, the economy, women's rights and much more will be discussed in the hope of mending the country's torn social, economic and political fabric.

Has the revolution been in vain?

However, young Yemenis who took part in the revolution have started to question whether their efforts to oust the previous regime were in vain. They are wondering whether the National Dialogue is going to fulfill the promise to create a new and improved Yemen.

Engineering student Abdul Azziz Morfak participated in the protests against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the age of 19. Now, two years later, he's not pleased with the results.

A group of young people on gather in Sanaa (Photo: Saeed Al Soofi)

Many people have started to ask if the 2011 revolution was in vain

"It's not what was in my mind," he said. "In general, I think people are not feeling good about what is happening, but we have to accept things for what they are."

Yemeni youth, who make up more than 50 percent of the population, were the driving force behind the country's revolution in 2011. Motivated by poor living conditions, limited opportunities and freedoms, lack of government transparency and government corruption, they protested for months against the Saleh government.

The National Dialogue is part of the deal, brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and supported by the UN, that ended the large-scale youth demonstrations. Since the agreement was made, foreign aid money, UN envoys, diplomats, international constitutional and reconciliation experts have flocked to Yemen to try to rebuild the country.

Fuad Hider, an assistant manager at a pharmaceutical company and coordinator at the youth center, says problems abounded under the previous regime.

"Everything was wrong with this country, the regime. There was no justice, the power was just being transferred from a father to his son, there was no democracy, the economy was in a very bad situation, education was very bad - I mean, everything was destroyed by the regime," he said.

US-based think-tank Freedom House classified Yemen as "not free" under the Saleh regime.

Unemployment had reached more than 30 percent under his rule.

People talk freely now

Hider says things have improved since the revolution, but his daily life has remained much the same.

"There is no big change, but I can see a change around me," he said. "I can see now that people are talking. Before the revolution so many people didn't, but now everyone in this country is talking and demanding. Now people are saying we need higher education, a good economy, and good policies created by people who are not corrupt."

Bildergalerie Jemen Proteste Separatisten Südjemen

Separatists in the South have repeatedly clashed with security forces

According to Morfak, discussion among Yemen's citizens is the revolution's greatest achievement. "Freedom of speech and talking without fear is a huge development. It's perhaps the only good thing that happened in Yemen," he said.

The National Dialogue is not without controversy. It's been marred by participant withdrawals, including that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman and other key political and tribal figures, and complaints about its structure and the flawed agreement that created it. But most people say it's the only route to complete the revolution and solve the country's problems.

"There is diversity in this National Dialogue, and this diversity is supposed to be good for solving the issues facing Yemen, but I'm still concerned," Hider said. "Sometimes I feel the dialogue is not going anywhere, but we don't have any other options. There was a movement, there was a revolution, and we did part of what we were dreaming of, and now we can fulfill the other things with this dialogue."

The South, the economy, corruption, women's rights

However, the dialogue faces many challenges: Economic woes, poor national security, a separatist movement in the south, a homegrown al Qaeda franchise, a growing number of Shia rebels in northern Yemen known as al Houthis, and various other tribal demands are just some of the issues it has to deal with over the next six months.

Arwa (photo: Khaled Nazeef)

Young women like Arwa want to see women's rights improved

For many participants, including President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi who took over from Saleh, the status of southern Yemen, which saw enormous rallies in favor of secession in advance of the dialogue, is considered the most pressing issue. Southern Yemen was an independent state until it joined the North in 1990. Since then it has accused the central government in Sanaa of mismanaging the country and marginalizing the South.

Arwa Al Fageeh, a 24-year-old English student who spent days with her family camping out in the streets during the revolution, says she's aware many are critical of the National Dialogue, and that it has many problems to solve, but there is one issue in particular she would like to see addressed.

"For me as a woman, I think women's rights and the law concerning women is the most important. The other things in the country, like the economy, secession, are important too, but the main thing for me is women's rights," she said.

Switzerland or Lebanon?

Meanwhile, engineering student Morfak argues Yemen is at a crossroads. "I guess Yemen has the chance to be a very tolerant country," he said. "It has a lot of differences, it has different languages, sects, or ideologies. I guess it can be like Switzerland or Lebanon. If the dialogue goes well, it will be like Switzerland. If it goes badly, it will be like Lebanon."

The stakes are high for the National Dialogue. According to the journal "Foreign Policy," it's a question of dialogue or civil war. Morfak shares this opinion, but stops himself from saying it out loud.

"If the Dialogue doesn't succeed, we will get lost," he says.

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