Mafraj Radio Episode 2

In the second episode of Mafraj Radio, we take a look back at the Youth Revolution of 2011 with Ibrahim Mothana, and go inside the long-awaited National Dialogue Conference with a member of the Youth delegation, Baraa Shiban. We also get an update on the situation in 'Aden from activist 'Alaa Isam.

Here's the full video of Youth delegate Mubarak al-Bahar's opening address to the National Dialogue Conference, quoted in Act 1:

Here's the Aden Live TV segment quoted in Act 2, in which the pro-Hirak satellite channel covers demonstrations and crackdowns in 'Aden.

Yemen's legacy families: between reconciliation and exclusion

Friend of the blog Fernando Carvajal reflects on a social group that is often overlooked in discussions of Yemen's political scene: families that made up the political elite in pre-unification and pre-republican Yemen. Fernando is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, and has studied and worked in Yemen for over a decade. As Yemenis live through phase one of the National Dialogue Conference, launched March 18, insiders and international observers work through pessimism, limited transparency, and an abundance of caution. The process itself has marginalized revolutionary elements from among the youth bulge and has failed to encourage southern participation. Added to the list of excluded groups now are various legacy families with their own historical grievances.

The process of incorporating independent youth elements to the Dialogue is much easier than observers have described. Strong young candidates have been identified by credible actors, yet a mix of hesitation by the international community and a complete refusal by traditional actors to recognize revolutionary ideas continue to marginalize those with credible grievances and street power. The more difficult issue haunting the transiton process remains the exclusion of legacy families from the north and south with grievances. The families of northern political actors affected by fifty years of intra-regime conflicts continue to struggle to find a role since the start of the 2011 uprising and now within the Dialogue process. Southern political actors, whether in Sanʻa, in the south, or abroad also find themselves struggling to fit into the process.

This year the Republic of Yemen will celebrate the fifty-first anniversary of the 26 September revolution against the Imamate of Al Hamid al-Din, and the forty-sixth anniversary of southern independence from British rule. In the north, conflict was never restricted to fighting between Royalists (supporters of the Imam) and Republicans (supported by Gammal 'Abd al-Nasser). Internal conflicts within both camps not only obstructed peace processes but also contributed to prolonged elite conflicts. The Hamid al-Din family, much of which has lived in exile since 1962, are not alone in demanding relief for their own grievances. Relatives of ousted president Abdullah al-Sallal and murdered president Ibrahim al-Hamdi are some actors among many other revolutionaries and sayyid families who believe the Dialogue must also address their concerns, as well as form part of the process bringing about a new Yemen.

In the south, contemporary politics are fixated on political actors such as ‘Ali Salem al-Baydh, ‘Ali Nasser, Haydar al-Attas, Mohammed ‘Ali Ahmed, Hassan Baʻoum and others leading the current uprising throughout southern provinces. Behind the scene there are other actors working arduously to ensure their voices are heard during the Dialogue conference or at minimum influence the process from behind closed doors. Such actors include southern sultans (al-Abdali, al-Kathiri, al-Qa’yti), tribal shaykhs and sharifs who—depending on whom you ask—were either forced to leave or left voluntarily before the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Many of them have lived in Sanʻa or elsewhere since 1967, and while not directly part of the northern regime they were never reclaimed by the southern government, nor were they accepted by southern actors during the Unification process of 1990. Since 1999 many of these actors expanded their activities to form a number of discussion forums where topics being discussed today were addressed, but never came to influence the regime in Sanʻa.

Intra-regime conflicts led to exile of revolutionary politicians and military offices in the Yemen Arab Republic, as well as numerous assassinations and ‘accidental’ deaths. In the south, those who opted to leave prior to 1967 were never allowed to reclaim their role in politics or their properties. Many of those who were pushed out in 1986 (known as Zumbra) did not have a role in the process of unification, but have been demonized for their role during the 1994 civil war as result of their support for ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh’s regime against separatists led by ‘Ali Salem al-Baydh.

Two generations in Yemen have grown up under conflicting historical narratives that have either ignored or demonized elites from both the north and the south. These ‘marginalized’ elites not only have an uphill climb vis-à-vis the current political structure, influenced by international actors and entrenched rivalries among centers of power, but also have to deal with the great distance between them and the current generation driving revolutionary ideas since February 2011. Even though youth in the north raised pictures of president al-Hamdi and revolutionary poet Mohammed Mahmoud al-Zubayri, young northern Yemenis have no connection with their progenies, and current elites have no incentive for including them. In the south, since 2009, youth only raised pictures of leaders perceived as their patrons, such as al-Baydh, and Baʻoum, the man who suffered from relentless northern harassment and oppression. This is the limited connection between the youth and the old guard in the south.

Many youth view legacy actors as merely part of the past and in no way find a role for them in the new process. The absence of trust extends beyond today’s institutions and political elites. Youth nationwide are unable to rally behind any political figure lacking potential staying power, and for any significant number of young Yemenis to eventually trust marginalized or exiled legacy elites remains very far away. The uphill battle for legacy elites will not end with exclusion from the Dialogue process. If they fail to position themselves in society once again during the transition period they may soon simply be relegated to history books written by non-Yemenis.

Hadi and his "friends," part II

Recently the online journal Muftah invited me to write something about Yemen, so I decided to use the opportunity to follow up on my last blog post with another look at the relationship between Yemen and its international backers. In this piece I examine the international community's apparent disconnect from reality and  how the Friends of Yemen's focus on largely irrelevant technical goals is harming Yemen's chances of a successful transition. Read my op-ed here.

Will the GCC deal destroy itself, or can a real transition be salvaged?

I was asked last week to write an op-ed about Yemen's upcoming presidential "election" for a German magazine. Because most of our readers don't read German (myself included), I'm publishing the English version of my article here, and the German version is available at Zenith Magazine Online. I expect many readers to disagree with parts of this piece, or think that I'm oversimplifying things. I think there's a lot about these issues that needs to be discussed, so please comment if you feel so inclined. In particular, I expect some readers to take issue with the last section, where I lay out a very simplistic prescription for a very complicated problem. I'm aware that these things are easier said than done, but the problem at hand is an existential one and must be confronted, regardless of how hard this solution might be to implement.

On February 21, Yemen will hold a presidential election that will defy almost every notion of what an election should be. Contrary to Yemeni law, the “election” will feature only one candidate, whose victory has been decided ahead of time; but even if the election’s result is certain, its effects are difficult to predict.

The voting process in question—“referendum” is a more accurate description than “election,” but both words are far too suggestive of democracy for this occasion—has been mandated not by the Yemeni constitution, nor by popular demand, but by an agreement signed by the heads of Yemen’s largest political parties and written by representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), hardly experts in the science of representative government. The GCC initiative, which was heavily sponsored by the United States and brokered in part by the United Nations, was foisted upon Yemen as an ostensible solution to what the GCC liked to call Yemen’s “political crisis,” the year-long popular revolution against the regime of President ʻAli ʻAbdullah Saleh. In actual fact, the deal could fail to meet any the revolution’s demands, while giving Saleh everything he could ask for.

Vice President ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—who has served Saleh since 1994 and has no real power base of his own—has been “nominated” by both Saleh’s ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC) and the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and will run unopposed (a few independent revolutionaries have declared their intentions to run, but none has been certified by parliament). With no opponent, Hadi is guaranteed victory. But other than a promotion for Hadi, it’s not clear what, if anything, the election will achieve.

The GCC initiative was drafted in late May after a series of negotiations that began in March, when a number of prominent political and military figures broke away from the regime in response to the March 18 massacre of over 50 protesters in Sanʻa. By the time Saleh signed the deal in late November, his forces had killed hundreds more and pushed the country to the verge of all-out civil war. Since the signing, incidents of large-scale violence have decreased, but otherwise not much has changed.

The unity government formed in December (another creation of the GCC deal) has thus far failed to achieve its most pressing objective, the demilitarization of Yemen’s cities and the restructuring of Yemen’s divided military. Saleh’s close relatives still command much of the armed forces and other coercive apparatuses. In fact, a great deal of Saleh’s regime remains intact. ‘Ali Saleh himself is currently vacationing in New York, and has said more than once that he plans to return to Yemen before February 21 to “participate” in Hadi’s big day. His exact plans for the near future are unclear, but neither the GCC deal nor the facts on the ground would prevent him from meddling in the political arena once the letter of the agreement has been carried out, especially since Yemen’s parliament has already passed a law granting Saleh and his henchmen full immunity from legal action (another stipulation of the deal).

Plenty of intelligent and well-meaning observers have argued in favor of both the immunity provision and the one-candidate election. Full immunity, they argue, was necessary to induce Saleh to sign the agreement and step down. In reality, however, the immunity provision has been counterproductive. It has alienated several revolutionary factions from the political process, prompting the so-called Huthi movement and much of the Southern Movement to announce boycotts of the coming election. It has deprived the new government of an avenue by which it could have removed regime officials from power and recovered purloined state revenues. Most important, though, is the lesson the provision teaches Saleh (not to mention Bashar al-Assad, Hamad al-Khalifah, et al.): that in the eyes of the world, ten months of brutality is no worse than four; that the reward for intransigence is leniency. The GCC deal handed Saleh a victory over his opponents he could never have won by force of arms; with that victory under his belt, and his loyal sons, nephews, and brothers still firmly ensconced in positions of power, what does it matter who bears the title of president?

The GCC initiative contains several provisions that are well thought-out and have the potential to be extremely beneficial. In fact, much of the initiative mirrors the original demands of Yemen’s revolutionary youth: the formation of a Conference of National Dialogue that includes all factions and parties, the drafting of a new constitution and a popular referendum to approve it, a sweeping process of political, judicial, educational, and economic reform to address the basic grievances of the people. But in order for any of those plans to come to fruition, two things must happen first. Before any other progress can be made, the entire Saleh family must be removed from power. With half of the military and huge tranches of the economy in their hands, any other reforms will be superficial. Second, the leaders of the transition and their foreign backers must convince all of the major revolutionary factions to buy in to the transitional process. By granting Saleh and his associates immunity from legal action and failing to place any other restraints on their behavior, the GCC agreement renders impossible the first of these. By forcing a farcical election on the country, it seriously hinders the second.

The international community’s mistakes can still be remedied, however, if the Yemeni transitional authorities are willing to take immediate, decisive action. President-elect Hadi should draft, with the approval of the unity government, a mechanism that would forbid ‘Ali Saleh from having any involvement in politics, and ban all of his immediate family members from military and political positions as well. This won’t be easy to accomplish, but one way or another it must be done if there is to be a meaningful transition. If the governments of the GCC and their friends in the west are at all serious about helping Yemen move forward, they must encourage Hadi in taking this step, and support the decision in any way possible. Once the complete removal of Saleh and his kinsmen is achieved, Hadi and the unity government must immediately assemble the Conference of National Dialogue and constitutional commission. The longer it takes the government to implement this phase of the GCC initiative, the more alienated the revolutionary factions will become, and the less likely groups like the Huthis and the Southern Movement will be to participate in Yemen’s transitional institutions.

If Hadi can summon the will to take decisive action now, Yemen may yet make the most of the deeply flawed transition plan. If not, come February 22, Hadi may find himself a president without a country.