The National Dialogue, beamed into Yemeni homes via state television, has now completed its first month of proceedings. It is far too soon to pontificate on its apparent success or failure, but this milestone does provide an opportunity to examine events at the conference so far.
The National Dialogue got off to a blistering start, and on the opening day the motley crew present—ranging from independent youth activists to tribal sheikhs to southern separatists, and everyone in between—gathered in Sana’a’s Movenpick Hotel to listen to Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, deliver his opening speech. Certain members of Al-Harak, the aforementioned Southern separatists, took the opportunity to unfurl the flag of the former South Yemen, a flag familiar to Hadi, himself a former high-ranking military figure in the South. Hadi had to deal with heckling from some delegates, and he proceeded to tell them that if they did not like the National Dialogue, then the door was open for them to leave.
Hadi and the Yemeni government would like to see more prominent leaders of Harak enter through that door, and into the National Dialogue. So far, many, including former South Yemen leader Ali Salem Al-Beidh, have stayed away, and completely reject the conference. However, many Harak members are present, including some with great standing in the South. Haydar Abu Bakr Al-Attas, the former prime minister of pre-unity South Yemen, the united Republic of Yemen, and the short-lived secessionist Democratic Republic of Yemen, has announced from his base in Dubai that he will join the National Dialogue. This would prove to be a major coup for the organizers, and will cause consternation for Al-Beidh and allied factions in Harak, whose claim to speak for the Southerners is damaged by each Southern figure, separatist or otherwise, that joins the National Dialogue.
The National Dialogue has seen impassioned speeches from all sides, and some landmark speeches amongst them. The speech delivered on behalf of the independent youth ended with the threat that those who had revolted before could revolt a million times more, even if it be inside the conference hall itself, before delivering the rousing call of “glory to the martyrs, freedom to the detained … and victory to the revolution.”
A particularly memorable address was that of the sole representative of the Muhamasheen, more commonly known as Akhdam, Yemen’s lowest social class, akin to the untouchables of India. When told his allotted time was up, he replied: “Let me finish my words. I’ve not spoken for 1,300 years,” referring to the historical marginalization of his people.
It is this spirit of defiance that has been the most obvious consequence of the National Dialogue’s first month. This has been seen in the desire of many delegates, especially those representing the youth, to put ‘traditional’ leaders in their place, so to speak. One such example is the race by some delegates to get to the conference hall early, so that tribal sheikhs and high-ranking officials are forced to sit at the back, something that they are not used to. Another example, and one that has gone viral on Yemeni social media, is the video of the confrontation between liberal human rights activist, Amal Al-Basha, and the head of Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, Sadeq Al-Ahmar.
In the video, Al-Basha is seen shouting at Ahmar and a number of other men, and repeatedly jabs her finger at them. Whatever your opinion on the etiquette of disagreement, the sight of an unveiled woman defiantly questioning one of Yemen’s most powerful traditional figures is something that simply could not have been imagined a few years ago, and one that, based on many of the comments written underneath the video online, is still not accepted by large segments of Yemeni society.
The microcosm of Yemeni society holed up at the Movenpick has five more months before it has to report back to the rest of the country. The delegates have been split up into nine committees designed to deal with different issues; the South, Sa’dah, good governance, state building, national reconciliation, development, rights and freedoms, army and security, and social issues.
Will they be successful? It depends what the parameters of success are. If the National Dialogue is seen as the tonic for the myriad of problems that Yemen faces, then no, it will not be. But most Yemenis do not see it as that anyway. For many Yemenis, the fact that such a disparate group of their countrymen, and countrywomen, are in the same room, discussing, and disagreeing, is reason enough to be positive.