First published in Huffington Post Blog on May 29 2013.
(This post was written in response to an article by Thomas Friedman in the NYT. It should not be taken as an analysis of the NDC entirely. Some of the positives aspects of the NDC have been neglected in this post because it is a response to the overly positive narratives and premature announcements of success of the the NDC which lacked constructive criticism).
Shortly following the internationally funded uncontested election in
Yemen, a high-ranking western diplomat berated me for not voting. When I
asked him, "would people in your country be happy with a one-person
election?" He responded: "people in my country are not trying to kill
While not all diplomats think this way, unfortunately, that
simplistic and ignorant statement is what drives much of western policy
on Yemen -- if there is a policy -- and it is also why it is expected
that Yemenis should accept half solutions -- should in fact celebrate
Maybe misconceptions of Arabs as apolitical, who were just "awakened"
by the "Arab Spring," leads to the belief that anything is a step
forward. These misconceptions, if internalized, lead to flawed analysis,
and worse they can become disastrous policies.
This is egregiously exemplified by Thomas Friedman's recent New York Times op-ed
(on May 11) where, for example, he states that "the good news is that
-- for now -- a lot of Yemenis really want to give politics a chance."
Friedman is referring to the internationally backed National Dialogue
Conference (NDC) in Yemen. The NDC began in March 2013 and is to last
for six months, with 565 delegates tasked with providing recommendations
and culminating in writing of a new constitution. Friedman's statement
attempts to celebrate Yemenis, while in fact downplaying an entire
history of political participation and ignores Yemen's cultural
tradition of dialogue and political pluralism. Yemen has had dialogues
before and has operated in a relatively diverse political sphere. The
movement for change in 2011 is a culmination of years of activities in
the south and north.
Neglecting all of that naturally does not present a thought-out
article. While the NDC helped bring new political actors to the
forefront creating new social transformations, and while the threat of
war has been delayed on the short term; nevertheless, it is too soon to
make a grand statement about the success or failure of this process, and
definitely too early to announce that the NDC and the overall
transitional process is a model to emulate, as Friedman suggests.
Renowned Yemeni journalist Sami Ghaleb critiqued Friedman's piece
saying: "Friedman's analysis is the perfect example of the way the US
makes premature political assessment on changes in the Arab world. It's
the fast food assessment." This fast food assessment is one that ignores
long-term impact and also historic factors that influence current
Friedman is not the first to make a grand statement about the NDC. In
fact, his piece echoes the statements made by U.S. ambassador to Yemen
Gerald M. Feierstein on March 29,
2013 and by Yemen's President later in early May. "Today, we are so
close to make a complete success and awaiting the dialogue's results,
which will forge the new future of Yemen," said President Hadi during his meeting with UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar.
These statements of success or failure lack depth and fail to define
success. For the international community, success might be defined by
the fact that a diverse group of Yemenis are in the same room debating
(not a first in Yemen, although media likes to propose it as such). For
others, success might be defined by the national input in writing a new
constitution, or the solving of deep-rooted conflicts in the north and
south of the country. This of course, has lead to conflicting ideas on
what is expected of the dialogue and hence will most likely
lead to disappointment regardless of the output. Ideally, the NDC
should be a process to build a new social contract between the people
and the governing power centers. Yet, the majority of citizens feel
disconnected from this process.
The average person has not felt the impact of the dialogue, and many
outside the cities have not even heard about it. If Friedman had spoken
to "some of the most interesting journalists, social activists and
politicians [he] met in the Arab world" whom he mentioned in his 2010 op-ed, a long list of concerns about the transitional process would have been highlighted.
Just a week before the heavily advertised and financed NDC, I asked a woman
in a village near the city of Hodeida "What do you think of the
National Dialogue?" A blank stare shaped her face, followed by: "What?
What's that?" I proceeded to tell her about the NDC, and then asked her
which priorities she hopes would be discussed in the dialogue. "Our
stomach," she responded! "We are hungry and we need jobs," she added.
She is not the only one who is unfamiliar with the dialogue.
While the recent field visits by members of the NDC to various cities
are a positive step, they nevertheless remain closed to certain groups
of people. In addition, the attempts so far to engage the general
population have failed, partly due to the emphasis on using online
medium for marketing in a country where 86 percent of the population do
not have access to the internet. The conference location at the
expensive and secluded Movenpick hotel with high security adds to the
alienation of conference participants from the general society. As
lawyer Haykal Bafana said on twitter, "in just over 2 months, Yemen's National Dialogue has spent US$9,282,000 - no tangible benefit so far."
In addition, each NDC participant receives $100 or $180 (for those
coming from outside the capital) per day, in a country where 40 percent
of the population lives under $2 a day. A participant told me "I don't
believe this [NDC] will bring about any change, but I can't find a job
either, so why not participate?"
This not only destroys any sense of civic duty but it is also in
contrast to the two years of civic engagement felt during the uprising.
The wide range of volunteer activities by revolutionaries was an
important stop in promoting civic engagement. Yet, the way the NDC is
organized is also reminiscent of Saleh's patronage system. It creates
what writer Ibrahim Mothana calls, "Per-diocracy" rather than democracy.
These challenges have made the NDC the butt of new nicknames: "the
market of illusion", "national sleep hypnosis conference", and "the
foreign national dialogue". The role of external players in Yemen is
perceived negatively for a number of reasons.
First, the way the international community, and precisely the Group
of 10 Ambassadors, have divided tasks related to the transitional
process amongst themselves, in their capacity as "facilitators of the GCC Initiative"
feels like an imposition to many. For example, the United States is in
charge of military restructuring, France the Constitution, the United
Kingdom policing, and the United Nations the NDC (with partnership and
support from the other countries). This created the perception that the
international community is imposing its agenda rather than cooperating
or aiding in the transformation.
Second, the transitional process and the NDC are heavily financed by the international community supports the above idea. The Yemen National Dialogue and Constitutional Reform Trust Fund (YNDCRTF)
was established to support Yemen's dialogue. The UN program stands at
$23.1 million, of which $15.1 million is to finance the Secretariat and
conference. In addition, donors from various countries are spending
millions on civil society work related to the NDC. The U.S. for instance
will spend $10.5 million in coordination with the Secretariat to provide technical and operational assistance to the dialogue offices.
Third, the interference in local decisions by international actors
has increased that perception. For example, U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar had
the final say in the allocation of representation at the dialogue. In
addition, U.S. Ambassador Fierstein's continued press conferences,
attendance of NDC and TV announcements on the progress of the
transitional process, has made him obtain the title of "Sheikh of Yemen"
and has served to enhance the wide held perception that it is an
externally lead process with an international rather than an indigenous
In addition, many believe that key decisions will be made among
Yemen's power centers outside the margins of the dialogue and that this
dialogue conference is just an expensive "show" forcing Benomar to announce
on May 13 that: "nothing is being cooked outside the conference halls."
Nevertheless, a key example of important decisions being taken outside
the dialogue is the military restructuring decree, which was announced
by President Hadi while the dialogue is ongoing without input from
Fourth, there is a significant divide between aspirations of the
civic movement for change and interests of key foreign and regional
players favoring the traditional elite seen through their support for
the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)'s power transfer agreement, which
lead former President Saleh's resignation from power for his vice
president in exchange for immunity from prosecution for him and 400
others. The root causes of discontent have not been addressed, which
deepens the rift and mistrust in the process.
Last and most important concern, is the inclusiveness of the NDC.
While some new entities have in fact been introduced to the political
scene, many of the leaders of the Southern Movement boycotted the NDC
because they do not believe it will solve the deep grievances felt by
the people in the South or their calls for secession. In fact, many of
the topics discussed cannot really be negotiated until the other more
important issues such as the southern question are dealt with. As Waseem
Al-Saqqaf, southern movement activist said:
"NDC members from the Southern Movement are there to discuss the
southern issue. Yet, they had to join other working groups such as the
one on security and military reform. How can a southerner who believes
in the right to self determination or in secession discuss restructuring
of a unified army?"
With the majority of southerners outside the negotiation, it is difficult to foresee how the Southern issue can be solved.
In the week Friedman wrote his very optimistic piece, power lines
were attacked, a fighter jet crashed in the capital (third one in the
past six months), and Yemeni workers in Saudi Arabia were deported. The
Yemeni economy is collapsing, people cannot find jobs, electricity cuts
are constant in the capital, children are going to sleep hungry, and the
same people who ruled the country for the past 33 years are still in
These concerns should also be priorities in the national dialogue.
For a process to bring about lasting change, the process itself should
matter. No matter how "successful" the outputs may be, it should be
internally driven one, or else no one will feel ownership of the
process, and it will be easy to abandon the results.