November 2, 2012

Yemen's National Dialogue Corrupted By Foreign Influences

November is scheduled to host Yemen's most inclusive political dialogue of the new millennium. Unfortunately this "National Dialogue," which is co-sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC), remains too exclusive to anticipate the substantial reforms that Yemeni revolutionaries are calling for:
  • Revoking the UN-approved immunity of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, prosecuting his crimes against humanity and terminating the last of his commanders, primarily his son Ahmed.
  • Restructuring of Yemen's military forces from Saleh's personal army into a national institution.
  • Resolving the territorial disputes in Yemen's northern and southern governorates.
The conference's year-long organization has fragmented enough to postpone its launch until November 15th at the earliest, and many Yemenis speculate an indefinite delay as this date approaches. The Trench has received pessimistic information in regards to the dialogue's status, which will be posted in the future. However the National Dialogue appears more likely to begin in an incomplete form, either in November or afterward, rather than preemptively address the outstanding grievances that could torpedo the conference's future.

This course of action makes sense on certain levels and defies reality on other fronts. Given the dialogue's build-up and the need for Yemen's diverse political society to express its aspirations, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi has understandably ruled out further delays and intends to press onward with his first major political test. Saleh's former vice president needs a boost in credibility as much as any group taking part in the dialogue. Putting aside its incomplete nature, a first round of dialogue can serve as the opening night for a national forum. No problem will be immediately resolved, but Yemenis cannot afford to allow their grievances to simmer without end.

They must engage each other's dilemmas - water, electricity, food, oil, militias, human rights, political representation - as soon as possible.

The overriding question is whether November 15th is still too soon. International powers have yet to strike a deal that temporarily removes Saleh from Sana'a (he would watch Hadi's referendum from New York City before returning), leaving Yemen's wiliest spoiler to act as he sees fit. A military restructuring is nowhere near complete, the northern Houthi sect remains an uncertain participate in the dialogue, the Southern Movement continues to advocate independence and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is undermining the conference's security with suicide bombers and assassins. Yemen's revolutionaries split over their own participation, with some groups perceiving the conference as an opportunity and others viewing it as a charade (Bahrain's failed "National Dialogue" comes to mind).

Anyone expecting big gains in November is set for disappointment. To these ends Foreign Policy has published two overviews of Yemen's National Dialogue, one from Silvana Toska and the other by April Longley Alley.

Both authors interpret a similar conclusion from the same set of factors: "Any potential solution for Yemen must take account of all the various players who currently dominate Yemen's political landscape. Ignoring the concerns of the Southern movement and refusing to countenance the possibility of secession is dangerous. Yemen successfully avoided a civil war last year with the help of the GCC, but it was only a band-aid for the short term. Meanwhile, the voices from different camps are getting louder, and the potential personal benefit of remaining in power, especially with the promise of foreign aid, could further exacerbate the situation."

Toska and Alley aren't wrong to tell the dialogue's point of view from inside Yemen; this story must be told and their analysis falls in line with The Trench's observations. However the two pieces mirror each other in many respects and, being published only three days apart, attract suspicion as a result. Both glaringly omit the foreign influences that threaten the dialogue's success - and The Trench suspects that Foreign Policy chose their reports for this reason. 

While the media source has published a few critiques of U.S. policy in Yemen over the past 21 months of revolution, most articles opt to whitewash America's support for Saleh's regime and the ongoing counterrevolution against Yemen's less manipulable actors.

"Last but not least," Toska concludes, "countervailing foreign interests in Yemen would add fuel to the fire should the country descend into a civil war. In 2007, Saudi Arabia sent an entire air force against a few Houthi rebels crossing its border, and such paranoia is even greater after the Arab Spring and the persistent problems with Shiite communities in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. Iran, meanwhile, will continue to balance Saudi Arabia within Yemen. The United States will most likely support whichever group or leader it considers a partner against al Qaeda in Yemen, a policy that rarely works to the benefit of the country on the receiving end of the drone attacks. Should Yemen slide into a civil war, the conflicting interests of these countries would exacerbate it. And considering the fact that Yemen has the second largest number of weapons per person in the world, Hadi's warning could indeed be right: it could be worse than Somalia and Afghanistan."

Foreign interference will not be saved for last in The Trench own analysis of Yemen's National Dialogue, but given a prominent seat at the table. Washington and Riyadh's fingerprints cover Yemen's internal problems, from the proxy battleground along the northern border to the south's instability. To be clear, these capitals aren't responsible for the Southern Movement's lack of organization or other internal disputes stemming from long-standing grievances. Yet Washington speaks the Saleh's language of "unity" and doesn't want to see an autonomous north or independent south, where the U.S. would suddenly lose control over al-Qaeda's territory. 

Washington is pressing Hadi's dialogue forward to counteract AQAP’s allure, then turning around and aggravating the south's population though a combination of political interference and drone warfare. U.S. actions have earned the anti-American influence that pervades Houthi territory, a trend unrelated to alleged Iranian influence.

International violations of Yemen's sovereignty are numerous and damaging to the country's national agenda - and don't make for good reading at Foreign Policy or any other tributary in the U.S. mainstream media.

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