This afternoon American Security Project in conjunction with Development Transformations hosted “Yemen’s Political Transition and National Dialogue: Progress and Challenges,” a panel discussion on the current issues facing Yemen and the efforts thus far, both internationally and internally, to address them.
Participating in the discussion were Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Embassy of the Republic of Yemen in Washington, DC; Tim Fairbank, Managing Director of Development Transformations; Ambassador Barbara Bodine, former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen and lecturer at Princeton University; Danya Greenfield, Deputy Director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East; and moderator BGen. Stephen Cheney, USMC (Ret.) and ASP CEO.
After an introduction of the panel, Albasha began by emphasizing the importance of Yemen’s current National Dialogue process, yet stressed the need to look beyond the dialogue and develop a foundation for long term stability. He maintained that the political transition process thus far has accomplished much, especially given that just two years ago he “would have said [Yemenis] were definitely heading for a civil war.”
Albasha highlighted the purely inspirational quality of the dialogue and the culture of unity that it has begun to engender nationwide. However he cautioned that the National Dialogue should not be seen as an endgame solution, nor should it be heralded as a model for the rest of the region. Yemen will require both diplomatic and economic support as it navigates this transition, and President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s meeting this Thursday with President Obama and this past week with Secretary Kerry and other U.S. officials should increase the visibility of Yemen’s current struggles in Washington and worldwide.
Fairbank continued by arguing that the National Dialogue offers the ideal time for U.S. policy to look beyond counter-terrorism strategies. The enduring, fundamental challenges facing Yemen and ultimately that threaten long-term U.S. interests rest in a much wider range of concerns than terrorism and extremism.
Fairbank did note that he saw significant warning signs in Yemen’s progress to date since the 2011 revolution, particularly that no mechanisms existed to institutionalize any of the agreements made during the actual National Dialogue process. Moreover, while the various facets of the Southern secessionist movement are represented in the dialogue, the process does not directly address the grievances and disenchantment that exists among the actual Southern population.
Ambassador Bodine echoed the sentiments of the previous panelists, emphasizing the “importance of the National Dialogue but not the sufficiency of the National Dialogue.” Officials wishing to glean lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan when approaching the transition in Yemen should avoid short-term solutions that “establish all the architecture” without really offering a legitimate system into which the population can buy. The ambassador argued that as Yemen undergoes a “negotiated revolution,” efforts must focus on redefining the social contract between a governmental system and the Yemeni citizens before the government can function both legitimately and effectively.
Building upon Fairbank’s comments, Ambassador Bodine also contended that the U.S. must broaden it’s approach to Yemen beyond security concerns. She noted that “security and stability are not synonymous… security you impose.” In fact she paraphrased one of her Yemeni acquaintances in stating that by focusing on security concerns, Yemen will never move beyond those security concerns and address the core issues, like unemployment, that first brought Yemenis to the streets in 2011.
Greenfield complemented these comments by discussing what is actually occurring on the ground in Yemen. As Albasha described, Greenfield noted that the National Dialogue has created a culture of discussion amongst Yemenis, and the Dialogue working groups actually visit the various regions of the country and engage directly with the population.
Nonetheless Greenfield cautioned labeling the National Dialogue a success or failure, calling it rather a process. While the endeavor may have avoided full-scale civil war, it has yet to really address the aims of the citizens who sought “an end to corruption and nepotism, an opening of the political space, the inclusion of disenfranchised populations” and better economic conditions across the board.
She also noted that dialogue representatives will most likely defer the more contentious issues until after the process has finished, and in the case of Southern secessionist movements this could prove detrimental. If Southerners reject the conclusions or prescriptions of the dialogue, given that many still do not view it as a legitimate institution, how will Yemen proceed?
Lastly Greenfield commented that so much focus has shifted towards the National Dialogue that other crises have been largely ignored. Consensus and stability are important steps for democratic development, but Yemenis need a functioning government as well that can provide vital public services and address immediate concerns.
In a final response, Albasha did note that he has seen a significant shift in focus within Washington from counter-terrorism concerns in Yemen to a broader, more comprehensive stability strategy.
To listen to the event, click below: