SANAA: Yemen, the only country where an Arab Spring revolt led to a negotiated settlement, is to launch a U.N.-backed national dialogue Monday aimed at drawing the state’s divisive players toward a reconciliation.
The tough talks, scheduled to run for six months, bring together 565 representatives of Yemen’s various political groups – from secessionists in the south to Zaidi Shiite rebels in the north, in addition to civil society representatives.
They aim to draft a new constitution and prepare for general elections in February 2014 after a two-year transition led by President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi.
The dialogue should take place as per the U.N.-brokered deal that eased former strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office following an 11-month uprising against his 33-year rule.
The talks, originally scheduled to start in mid-November, were delayed mainly due to the refusal of factions in the Southern Movement – campaigning for autonomy or secession for the formerly independent south – to join in.
Most factions have finally agreed to take part after months of negotiations and under U.N. pressure.
But the movement’s hard-liners led by South Yemen’s former President Ali Salem al-Baid have dug in their heels to insist instead on negotiations between two independent states in the north and south.
They have called for mass protests against the conference Saturday and Sunday in the southern capital of Aden.
After North and South Yemen united in 1990, the south broke away in 1994. The secession triggered a short-lived civil war that ended with the region being overrun by northern troops.
In 2007, the Southern Movement emerged as a social protest movement made up of retired officials and soldiers. But it has gradually grown more radical in its demands.
“President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi and U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar have multiplied their efforts to convince reluctant factions of the Southern Movement to join the dialogue,” the conference’s Secretary-General Ahmad bin Mubarak said.
“The door remains open for these factions to join the dialogue at any time,” he told AFP.
Yemeni analyst Abdel-Ghani al-Ariani believes that “real dialogue can only begin when southerners speak in one voice,” and this will only be possible if “the government takes the initiative to satisfy their demands.”
Southerners demand reinstating or compensating around 60,000 civil servants, military and police officials “unfairly” fired or sent into early retirement during Saleh’s rule.
If their demands are not met, warns the deputy director for the Brookings Doha Center, Ibrahim Sharqieh, many southerners will “continue to insist on secession from a government in Sanaa that they do not trust.”
“In transition periods, wrong decisions can undermine the political process and stoke further chaos and instability,” Sharqieh wrote in a study on Yemen.
For him, the continued presence on the political scene of Saleh, who remains head of the formerly ruling General People’s Congress Party, poses a threat to the talks.
“Saleh’s role has complicated [the] national dialogue and, as a result, the reconciliation process,” Sharqieh said.
Saleh’s opponents have called for his ouster as GPC head and for him to be kept out of politics.
A source from the dialogue’s preparatory committee told AFP Saleh will not represent his party at the talks, in which it has been granted the lion’s share of seats with 112 representatives.
In addition to the southern question, Zaidi Shiite rebels, who have mounted repeated uprisings in the far north since 2004, have clashed with Sunni Salafists in northern Yemen. They are both taking part in the dialogue.
Yemen, facing serious economic challenges, is also home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the global network’s deadliest franchise that, although weakened, continues to target security forces across the country.
For the safety of participants, authorities in Yemen – where gun ownership is part of the local culture – are to ban the carrying of weapons in cities where the talks are taking place.
Officials say around 60,000 troops are to be deployed for security.