Outspoken feminists rub shoulders – metaphorically, at least – with Salafis. Youth activists mingle with establishment politicians. A representative of the Houthis, a rebel group turned political movement that has fought with the government for the past decade, helps run the show. Delegates from the southern provinces constantly vying for autonomy casually cross conversational red lines on independence talk as others in the room veer on declaring secession treasonous.
It will be months before anyone can say whether Yemen's ambitious national dialogue conference, slated to tackle major issues such as constitutional reform and restructuring the government, was a success. But the conference, which began last week and will last into the fall, can already celebrate one achievement: In this divided country, it has managed to get representatives from the bulk of the key factions in the same room.
“You see all these currents with different interests and you wonder how they’ll reach agreement on one current for Yemen,” says Saadaldeen bin Taleb, minister of industry and trade and a participant in the conference representing the Southern Movement. “Of course, this will go on for six months, and hopefully we’ll see real focus on the key issues. Still, let’s just say that this whole process is new to us.”
With the proceedings broadcast live, Yemenis across the country are able to tune in.
Expectations are as high as the anxiety over what will happen if the conference is derailed. Even at this early stage more than a dozen delegates have pulled out.
Longstanding tensions are far from dissipating. Opening remarks have been punctuated by loud expressions of disagreement and an assassination attempt on a Houthi delegate left three of his companions dead, prompting the group to suspend its participation in the next day’s meetings. Still, the Houthis have been emphatic about their commitment to the conference, and most participants are optimistic that the summit will bear fruit.
“The last week is an indication that we are building a base for a very serious dialogue,” says Mohamed Abu Lahoum, a participant who heads the liberal Justice and Building party. “We have not heard any serious confrontation between any groups; I think we’ll soon see some reshuffling in terms of alliances. And by 2014 we will see the birth of a different Yemen.”
Few Yemenis oppose the idea of resolving the country's conflicts through dialogue, especially after two years filled with instability and sometimes violence, but anxiety that the dialogue will only lead to surface level reforms is prevalent. Some bring up similar talks that preceded Yemen’s 1994 Civil War and stress that the picture is not all that different today: The military is still divided and there’s no guarantee that powerful, heavily entrenched members of the elite will honor the results of the dialogue.
Some prominent figures are sitting the conference out. A number of key leaders in the Southern Movement, an umbrella group of factions calling for a return to autonomy for the south, are boycotting, instead reiterating calls for outright secession. In rallies in the former southern capital of Aden, timed to coincide with the dialogue’s start, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to voice their rejection of the conference.
And days before its kickoff, a number of Sanaa-based delegates, including Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, announced their pull-out, largely citing issues with representation and the performance of the transitional government.
“I can’t join in the dialogue in an atmosphere like this,” said Ahmed Saif Hashed, an outspoken, independent member of parliament who said his name was placed on the official list of participants without his knowledge. “The government has failed to create the right conditions; military restructuring is incomplete and the center of power remains in the hands of forces who are inherently opposed to the modern, civil state we are looking for.”
Representation is a sore subject. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s party holds the largest number of seats, and many say that establishment figures have been privileged at the expense of women and youth.
Still, most participants seem willing to shelve such concerns – for now – in hopes of encouraging an attempt at reconciliation. Even skeptical or apprehensive participants argue that, at the moment, it’s the best option the country has.
Yemeni activist Hamza al-Kamaly abandoned medical school in Cairo in 2011 to be a part of the change that began sweeping Yemen that year, putting his life on hold in order to become one of the most prominent voices among Yemen's young agitators for change. In a speech at the conference opening, Mr. Kamaly and his comrades stressed that even though Mr. Saleh is gone, the country's elites still hold much of the power and dreams of a “new Yemen” and hopes of justice remain unfulfilled.
However, for once, the targets of his criticism were sitting in his audience, a product of the national dialogue's mission to bring together the country's most disparate groups.
“This is the most important and transparent dialogue in the history of Yemen. We as the youth, along with other civil powers, had no choice but to participate – regardless of our issues with some of those who are there,” Kamaly says. “We’re hopeful, even if we appear to lack the power of participants. Still, we have not forgotten how to go to the streets, and we’re prepared to return if necessary.”