When the Arab Spring emerged in 2011, Yemen was not one of the candidates tipped to end a revolutionary process successfully. It is a poor country with several problems on resources, highly dependent on oil and water-starved: 45% of its population has unimproved access to drinking water sources. Besides, Yemen is also facing difficult long term social challenges: high unemployment, and a high population growth rate.
Nor does the country present the best scenario for an integrated political change. It is a fractured state, with a strong tribal structure, that until 1990 was divided between North and South. Furthermore, Yemen has the world’s second highest rate of guns per capita: 61 per 100 residents (data is not available with some countries). So, the first effect of the uprisings against Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 was a situation bordering on a violent civil war.
But this time, gloomy perspectives can be proved wrong. As Thomas L. Friedman writes in The New York Times, Yemen is the best example among the “Arab Spring” countries of how to make a post-revolutionary political process, due to its National Dialogue initiative. Following elections in February 2012, new President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi had a formal transfer of powers before Saleh announced his resignation. And, following an initiative of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen launched a National Dialogue to discuss key constitutional, political, and social issues.
There are two main concepts in this idea. First, it is being done before writing the new Constitution and holding presidential elections. Yemen has six months to decide about its future. And second, this dialogue is making serious efforts to be called “National”. People of Yemen are being encouraged to know each other’s views and ideas: different political factions, new parties, young people, women, Islamists, tribes, northerners and southerners… as Friedman lists in his article. The Shared Societies Project specially celebrates this last idea.
The National Dialogue started past March 18, with 565 delegates tasked with developing recommendations to use in the new Constitution, that will be written by February 2014. These recommendations will address topics such as rights and freedoms, the role of the Army, women’s rights, or the relations between North and South. Also, the Yemenis have extended the debate to social networks. They are discovering politics and they are trying to be part of it.
“In the beginning, it was very tough”, said to the NY Times Yhia Al-Shaibi, former education minister. “But, after a while, things started getting calm, people were sitting together and eating together and we see our different views. Now we can hear what each other says. We are starting to listen to each other and try to come to consensus”.
The National Dialogue can be a powerful tool to make Yemen a Shared Society. The challenge looks difficult, but the first positive results are making it look a bit less difficult. The problems mentioned above (proliferation of guns, scarce water resources and unemployment) are still there, but a shared Constitution, a Constitution for all Yemenis, born from this Dialogue, can be a great step.