Yemen’s ‘national dialogue’ ends in violence, no election scheduled


McClatchy Foreign Staff

An ambitious months-long summit tasked with sketching out Yemen’s future in the wake of the 2011 uprising that unseated the country’s longtime president held its final working session Tuesday, amid evidence that this impoverished nation’s security situation remains precarious.

As the Conference of National Dialogue, which opened last March, began its deliberations, unknown gunmen assassinated Ahmed Sharafeldin, a university professor who was representing the Houthis, a Shiite Muslim rebel group. Two hours later, a bomb ripped through the car of Abdulwahab al Ansi, the secretary-general of the Islamist Islah Party, seriously wounding his son.

The mayhem seemed somehow fitting to the final working day of an undertaking that was conceived as a way to smooth the path to democracy following the end of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule. Formally headed by current President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the conference was intended to provide an inclusive forum to address the grievances of groups ranging from the Houthi rebels, who’d been the target of a series of brutal government wars, to southern separatists to disaffected youths, while undertaking wide-ranging constitutional and administrative reforms.

Instead, it became an example of Yemen’s many conflicts. Initially slated to last six months, its work was the subject of repeated disagreements that led to the conference’s extension. Meanwhile, violence continued in much of the country, underlining the persistence of the political divisions.

Clashes pitting the Houthis against Sunni Islamist militants and tribal fighters in northern provinces have killed hundreds. Tensions between government troops and hard-line secessionist factions – the bulk of which have boycotted the dialogue – turned violent in the formerly independent south, while the fighters of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based terrorist franchise, remained resilient despite continuing U.S. drone strikes.

Sharafeldin was the second Conference of National Dialogue delegate to be assassinated – Abdulkarim Jadban, a member of Parliament who also was representing the Houthis, was gunned down exiting a mosque in November – and numerous security officials have been targeted in the capital and other cities.

Yemeni officials and international diplomats alike have condemned such violence as acts aimed at scuttling the country’s transition, but it remains unclear who’s responsible. Many here continue to suspect allies of the former president or his ally turned nemesis, regime strongman-turned-defector Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, who retain power despite Hadi’s efforts to restructure the military.

Sabotage attacks on oil and electricity infrastructure continue with alarming regularity, while Yemen’s stagnant economy has yet to pick up.

Regardless, international actors and the bulk of Yemeni political factions continue to voice at least rhetorical support for the transitional road map and for Hadi himself, though the initial plans have been retooled.

Taking office in February 2012, Hadi eagerly expressed his willingness to hand over power after an abbreviated two-year term; until recent months, the public statements of diplomats and Yemeni officials set expectations for presidential and parliamentary elections early this year.

But such expectations will certainly be unfulfilled ,and when a new president will be selected is anyone’s guess. The Conference of National Dialogue concluded only that elections will take place within nine months of a referendum on a yet-to-be-drafted new constitution.

Hadi, Saleh’s vice president, who was named to the presidency in a referendum in which he was the only candidate, has managed to retain a surprising amount of popular support, but analysts have cautioned that opposition might mount as time goes on.

“Hadi risks losing legitimacy amid ordinary Yemenis, of being seen as a different side of the same coin rather than a leader bringing a ‘democratic culture’ to a new Yemen,” said Fernando Carvajal, a political analyst who specializes in Yemeni affairs. “He risks losing all of the momentum he had when he took office two years ago.”

Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron

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