Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
If you want to know how bad things can go in Syria, study Iraq. If you want to know how much better things could have gone, study Yemen. Say what? Yemen?
Yes, Yemen. Maybe the most unique postrevolutionary political process happening in any country experiencing an Arab awakening is in poor, fractured, water-starved Yemen. In its own messy way, Yemen is doing what all the other Arab awakening countries failed to do: have a serious, broad-based national dialogue, where the different political factions, new parties, young people, women, Islamists, tribes, northerners and southerners are literally introducing themselves to one another in six months of talks — before they write a new constitution and hold presidential elections. (After decades of autocracy, people in these countries did not know each other.)
It is what Egypt certainly failed to do in any serious way before rushing ahead with presidential elections that have left many people feeling disenfranchised and Islamists running away with the politics. One of the most important things President Barack Obama could do to advance the Arab awakening is give a shoutout to Yemen’s approach. Yes, the odds of success here are still really, really long — the effects of 50 years of overexploiting Yemen’s water and soil could overwhelm even the most heroic politics — but what Yemen is doing is the only way any Arab awakening state can hope to make a stable transition to democracy.
Kicked off on March 18, the 565 delegates to Yemen’s national dialogue are developing recommendations on how to address nine issues ranging from future relations between the feuding north and south to state-building to the future role of the army to rights and freedoms — all of which will go into the writing of a new constitution and holding of elections in February 2014.
“In the beginning, it was very tough,” said Yahia Al-Shaibi, a former education minister participating in the dialogue, 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 official dialogue has stimulated an even bigger unofficial one. Yemeni Facebook pages and Twitter feeds have exploded with debates about politics, women’s rights and the army. After decades of being silenced, everyone wants to talk now. Women are one-third of the dialogue delegates, and the men are having to adapt. An American democracy adviser here told me this story: “We find that the women members of the dialogue usually come prepared and show up on time. It’s open seating, so sometimes they sit in the front row. The other day a tribal leader came late and went to the front seat, which was already occupied by a woman, and he said, ‘That’s my seat.’ And she said, ‘No, it’s not.”’
The dialogue is possible because of the gradual (and messy) way Yemen’s awakening played out. It started in 2011 with youth-led protests that escalated into near civil war and a government breakdown until then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed power to a transitional government. Saleh’s party and his followers, along with the biggest opposition bloc, Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, still retained influence. There was no “de-Baathification” or “de-Mubarakization” in Yemen — but much more of a “no-victor-no-vanquished.”
No party was absolutely “defeated,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Mohy al-Dhabbi. It gave everyone a stake in the democracy transition and “allowed for everyone to give concessions.”
It also allowed time for women and the youths who started the revolution “to all get involved politically before the elections,” added Aidrous Bazara, a businessman in the dialogue. Now no one party “can steal” the revolution, he said. That has been reinforced by the recent decision by Yemen’s new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to professionalize the army, starting by purging Saleh’s relatives from the intelligence agency and the elite Republican Guard.
Yemen is a National Rifle Association paradise. It seems as if every Yemeni man owns a gun and many walk around with daggers in their belts. Yet this country may end up having the most extensive Arab awakening dialogue, with relatively few casualties — so far. It is a reminder for Syria’s rebels that better guns may be needed to topple their dictator. But, without a culture of inclusion, it will all be for naught.
Jamila Rajaa, a woman participating in the dialogue, told me she still worries that some old parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are happy to let the dialogue distract the country, while they are feverishly working the streets to cultivate votes to win the election in order to dominate the next government. Some modern Yemeni women see how the Muslim Brotherhood is ruling in Egypt, when it comes to women, and they want their own Islamists to go through a mindset shift before assuming any power.
It’s all part of the dialogue — why it is really hard and why it has to succeed, otherwise, as a recent United States Institute of Peace report warned: “Yemen risks falling backward into open conflict.” The good news is that — for now — a lot of Yemenis really want to give politics a chance. You’ve got to root for them.
Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.