Sanaa, Yemen – As Yemen continues its six-month-long National Dialogue – a conference intended to unify the country after the 2011 rebellion – some independent youth and women say their voices are being marginalised by the established order.
Born out an initiative from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – which included a controversial immunity deal for former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a subsequent one-man presidential election won by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi – the National Dialogue process, postponed since last November, is meant to culminate in a new constitution and elections in February 2014.
But some youth and women who played a key role in toppling Saleh are concerned their voices won’t be heard when delegates meet at a luxury hotel in Yemen’s capital.
“They [the people] have basic needs [that aren’t being met],” Nouria Nagi, the director of YERO, a local NGO, told Al Jazeera. “The school and health system is terrible. We had a seven-year-old child faint because he has no food to eat. So all this money wasted on the Dialogue at the Movenpick Hotel upsets me.”
The hotel sits in the middle of what some term Yemen’s own “Green Zone”. Cordoned off and teeming with security, it is where the initiative’s 565 delegates are supposed to represent the aspirations of Yemen’s 25 million people – many of whom live in poverty.
Topping the list of critical issues is the status of southern Yemen, which saw enormous separatist rallies leading up to the Dialogue. Other issues include national development, transitional justice, military restructuring, and state-building in a country riddled with corruption and largely governed by tribal networks.
“The timeline is extremely tight,” admits United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar. “It is very clear it is going to be a big challenge for the Yemenis to complete the tasks that lie ahead.”
Those at the forefront of the revolution are dismayed that Saleh, with a fortune estimated in the millions of dollars, is still ensconced in the capital, and that traditional political parties dominate the Dialogue, with Saleh’s General People’s Congress taking 112 seats.
Political elite dominate Yemen national conference
Yemeni youth and female activists, motivated by bleak living conditions, played an integral role during the uprising in demanding an end to the Saleh regime.
Youth, who comprise the majority of Yemen’s mostly rural population, face limited education and employment prospects within a dismal economy, and are constrained by tribal networks and nepotism.
For Yemeni women, professional and social freedoms in the south regressed significantly after the 1994 unification with the north. Discrimination against women is reflected in Yemen’s constitution, personal status laws, and penal code. There is currently no minimum age for marriage.
Last year’s Global Gender Gap Index, released by the World Economic Forum, ranked Yemen as dead last in terms of gender disparities.
‘Not enough seats’
The National Dialogue allotted independent youth, women and civil society 40 seats each. The quota across party lines for youth – defined as those between 18 to 40 years old – stands at 20 percent, with a 30 percent quota for females.
“Forty seats is not enough for youth who gave their lives for change,” says activist Atiaf Alwazir. “The only reason they are having this Dialogue is because of the revolution. And now the same people that brought them here, the youth, are kind of marginalised.”
While she says their inexperience is a disadvantage, their strong suit is honesty, which shows during the televised sessions, she explains.
“The question is: can these independent groups really form a strong lobby inside to promote a third voice, and real change? That’s the hope. As individuals they don’t have power, but together they can form a strong group.”
The odds are stacked against them. Independent delegates were only informed of their participation two days before the Dialogue kicked off on March 18, much later than those backed by political parties. This has forced the delegates to scramble to unite on their messaging.
Yemeni Minister of Human Rights Hooria Mashhour believes political parties are trying to manipulate the makeup of the independent bloc. “To speak about independent youth is an elastic word,” she says. “Some are supporters for political parties – that is the truth.”
The independents acknowledge their lack of political expertise and disparate concerns puts them at a disadvantage.
“We are forty and we have forty messages,” says Sahar Ghanem, 31, from Aden and a member of the youth bloc. “I think we have some shared issues related to the revolution and life. We are calling for dignity, rights and justice.”
“The biggest challenge with the political parties is that they came here to regenerate their power and position and say we are here – and will always be,” Ghanem says.
“They will not provide solutions for the country, they keep creating the same problems as they did before because they benefit. It’s not just about excluding us.”
“My fear is the Dialogue might be a way to split the cake between the elites to make them happy and not fight.”
– Sarah Jamal Ahmad, activist
Another bone of contention is the National Dialogue’s start date on March 18, the second anniversary of the Juma’at al-Karama (Friday of Dignity) massacre of 52 protesters by Saleh forces. A recent Human Rights Watch report says most of the perpetrators have not been brought to justice. Some activists accuse the government of co-opting the anniversary date for political purposes.
The youth delegation warned National Dialogue members that all those responsible for killing revolutionaries, including those present in the hall, would be brought to justice, and that if their demands within the dialogue were not met, they would revolt again.
Independent youth member Bara’a Shaiban is adamant they have to participate to have their voices heard.
“The youth rejected the GCC initiative, and I think that was the time they should have realised there was a political process going, and they were left behind. We should learn from this lesson and if we want to make change, make it within the system, not outside.”
Other revolutionary activists prefer to advocate from the sidelines. Sarah Jamal Ahmad, 24, a well-known activist, is one.
“The National Dialogue is the baby of the GCC initiative,” she asserts. “And they dealt with it as a fight between the political elite.
“My fear is the Dialogue might be a way to split the cake between the elites to make them happy and not fight. So Yemen’s fate forever would be to live in so-called peace, not having a civil war, but the people won’t be okay.
“The biggest and best agenda the region has for us is to stop us killing each other, but not more – don’t dream of more.”