Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi is not known for his skill as an orator. During interviews and at public events he seems stiff, ill at ease and disconnected. He rarely speaks freely, choosing instead to read out pre-written comments. But at a recent meeting in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, he was passionate, and seemed at several points to be on the verge of bursting into tears.
“I need you to stand by me, for the sake of Yemen,” he said in a rare moment of unscripted candour. “Serious decisions are going to be made.” Like many of those in the room at the upmarket Movenpick hotel, the president was carried away by a moment that many in Yemen had begun to doubt would ever come. The National Dialogue Conference, a months-long series of peace talks aimed at the creation of a new constitution, had finally come to an end.
Four days later, on January 25, at a ceremony held to formally conclude the talks, Hadi held a copy of the agreement in the air, to rapturous applause. Describing the conference as an “unprecedented success”, he also sounded a warning that summed up the mood in the room. “Some people say that the problem is not in writing laws, it is implementation,” he said. “This is relatively correct… There is a big difference between our past and our future.”
Yemen’s peace plan has been lauded by diplomats, and has been held up as a model for similarly conflict-afflicted states including Syria. But thus far the transition has involved far less meaningful change than other transitional Arab states such as Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. While those countries have each held national elections and appointed new governments, Yemen held a one-man presidential poll for Hadi, who was previously deputy to Yemen’s longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in February 2012. The country has been run since November 2011 by a coalition government made up of Saleh’s party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the country’s historically loyal opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties.
Since the transitional government took charge, Yemenis felt ignored and the idea of a civil state began to disappear from their psyche.
The peace plan has aimed for stability and gradual change rather than rapid, potentially destabilising shifts. Its backers point to the unrest in other post-Arab Spring states as evidence that transitions that move too quickly are often derailed equally quickly.
But critics of the plan, including many activists who took part in the country’s 2011 uprising, argue that political participation has been limited to the conference, which was made up of 565 delegates from the country’s many political factions. These include the GPC, the JMP, southern separatists, youth activists, and the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia group that fought an on-and-off civil war against Saleh between 2004 and 2010.
But now the talks are over and the real challenge has begun. In the coming months and years, a draft constitution must be written and put to a referendum, after which elections will need to be held.
If, that is, the country’s next government – the current transitional administration is due to be replaced by a reshuffled cabinet in February – can convince Yemenis that referenda and elections are worth participating in.
The dialogue conference has done little to convince Yemenis that the group that gathered at the Movenpick in Sanaa have their best interests at heart, says Sama’ al-Hamdani, a Yemeni political analyst. If anything, she says, the poor performance of the interim government, which has struggled to provide basic services and security even in the capital, has made many Yemenis feel more isolated than ever in a country often described as being on the verge of becoming a “failed state”.
“Since the transitional government took charge, Yemenis felt ignored and the idea of a civil state began to disappear from their psyche,” she says.
While the conversation in Sanaa has been centred on ways of rebuilding Yemen as a modern, inclusive state, longstanding tension between traditional religious, tribal and regional authorities and the central state have become more visible elsewhere, Hamdani adds. “During the last three years, some political actors took advantage of the absence of the state to strengthen the spirit of regionalism,” she says. “Today, most governorates and villages identify with tribal doctrines and religious identities due to the lack of a strong national [identity]. Since , a ball has been set in motion to strengthen micro-identities and its effects are clearly visible.”
New groups and conflicts highlight this shift. In 2012, the army fought the local al-Qaeda franchise, which had seized control of much of the southern province of Abyan, while the Houthis, a northern Zaydi Shia revivalist movement with a powerful militia and a political arm, have been embroiled in clashes with fighters allied to a Salafi institute in the Houthi heartland, Sadah; and the Hashid, Yemen’s biggest tribal confederation, in neighbouring provinces. A tribal uprising has also broken out in the southeastern province of Hadramout. In each case, groups that have taken control of territory – al-Qaeda, the Houthis, and the tribes – have been able to gain a degree of popularity by providing basic services and security.
Sheikh Mohamed Abulahoum straddles several of the different identities at play in Yemen. A leading member of the Bakil, Yemen’s second biggest tribal confederation, he is a former member of the GPC, and in 2011 became a founding member of Justice & Building, a new political party that promotes the idea of a civil state and a competent government. He says Yemenis are returning to their traditional roots, and that the weak performance of the government is one of the reasons behind the drift.
|Inside Story – Yemen: Redrawing the political map?|
“We are at a very critical time,” he says. “When you go back to your tribe or community, it is because there is not justice, because you feel threatened. In the UK, or the US, people do not go back to their communities because the same rules apply to everyone – but in Yemen, where there is a weak government, people go back to their tribes.”
In order to arrest the slide, Abulahoum says the government needs to start providing services and security. But to do that, the people running the government will also have to change the way they work. “Whenever you talk about ‘new Yemen’ it isn’t about new people, it is about a new mindset,” he says.
Some analysts had thought that the Arab Spring would help change attitudes in the region. There was a “big psychological shift” during the uprising that unseated Yemen’s autocratic Saleh, says Hussam Alshajarbi, an economic consultant who also co-founded a new party, al-Watan, in 2011. But he worries that the gains made that year have been reversed.
“In 2011, even sheiks were willing to drop their guns and create a civil state,” he says. “In 2011, people had high hopes and they expected fast results… But now in some areas people feel that you can get more if you use arms.”
Building a civil state – where an elected central government is trusted to make the rules on behalf of everyone – “is not about hanging a barrier saying that is what it is,” explains Abulahoum.
“Ideas are not enough. People want action and results, not talk,” says Alshajarbi.
Yet both men agree that meaningful change will take time. The Saleh regime was in power for more than 30 years and remains entrenched in government and society. “That will not change overnight,” Abulahoum says.
The question is, how much more time does Yemen have?
“I expect things will get worse before they get better,” Alshajarbi says. “You don’t create government out of thin air.”
Follow Peter Salisbury on Twitter: @altoflacoblanco