Interview with Abdul Karim al-Eryani on Yemen’s Transition

Dr. Abdul Karim Ali al-Eryani is a former prime minister of Yemen and chairman of the preparatory committee on national dialogue. Yemen is preparing for major changes in the structure of its government and institutions and is holding a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) next year, laying the groundwork for a general election in February 2014.

In this interview, Dr. al-Eryani discusses the recent announcement of the shares of political parties and other groups participating in the NDC. “The president asked all political parties, all stakeholders, to deliver the name of their participants by, maximum, the end of this month. If all participants are submitted by names to the president, I think it will take two weeks to convene the national dialogue,” he said.

Dr. al-Eryani believes that the national dialogue will be successful in part because of its inclusivity; it includes young people, women, and religious minorities such as the Ismailis and the Zaidis.

“Even the Jews will be represented, and there are only 300 of them left,” he said.

“The challenge that has not been overcome is to guarantee the participation of the Southern Hirak,” he said.

Dr. al-Eryani also discussed the role of external actors, in particular the UN and again the Gulf Cooperation Council, in the transition.

“Yemen has not really overcome all the crises, all the challenges. But when you look at the situation during 2011 until late 2011, and the situation now until late 2012, I think the overall situation has improved,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Nur Laiq, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Nur Laiq: Dr. al-Eryani is chairman of the preparatory committee on national dialogue in Yemen and former prime minister of Yemen. Welcome, Dr. al-Eryani.

Yemen faces political fragmentation and a deteriorating security situation. The transition agreement offers an opportunity for national dialogue and a chance to address longstanding grievances and the establishment of an inclusive political compact. What’s your assessment of the key challenges Yemen is facing at this moment? And what can the national dialogue and mediation contribute to reverse the precarious situation that Yemen is in?

Abdul Karim al-Eryani: Thank you very much. I think, myself, as someone who lived there in 2011, and now I live in 2012, I am qualified to make a comparison. Yemen has not really overcome all the crises, all the challenges. But when you look at the situation during 2011 until late 2011, and the situation now until late 2012, I think the overall situation has improved. The security situation in the main cities is quite normal. The road blocks in the capital have been removed. The division of the capital itself during 2011–the south was in the hands of one faction, the north in the hand of another faction, both factions were almost cousins. Therefore, the fact that you can travel throughout the city without any roadblocks or checkpoints is very, very significant.

The economic situation today is the main challenge because it takes quite a time to improve the very dire economic situation. The national dialogue is definitely expected before the middle of next month, or around the middle of next month.

The preparatory committee, which I chaired–and before that, I chaired the contact committee; we worked for two months as the contact committee to conduct discussions, meetings with various political factions in order to persuade them to join the national dialogue–those who have agreed to join, more or less all of them, were appointed into the preparatory committee. We worked from last September until yesterday (December 13, 2012), almost. Before I left, I had signed the accompanying letter to the pioneering report, and it was delivered to the president.

The president asked all political parties, all stakeholders, to deliver the name of their participants by maximum the end of this month. If all participants are submitted by names to the president, I think it will take two weeks to convene the national dialogue. The challenge that has not been overcome is to guarantee the participation of the Southern Hirak.

Southern Hirak is unfortunately multi-headed. It is a very difficult situation to convince people to come and participate. There are efforts, international efforts, as a matter of fact. The state minister for the Middle East from London, Alistair Burt, was there the week before this. He came from London specifically to visit the Hirak chairmen–or head, there are no chairmen, there are heads. He went to Aden with the American Ambassador, the Russian Ambassador, and the lady Ambassador of the European Union. They all met with various factions, but unfortunately, despite the long trip he made–at least as far as I know–no breakthrough.

I think the GCC countries are convening another meeting in Rio next week. The Secretariat has invited a large number of southerners who live outside Aden, but they will invite also people from Aden, Hadramout, and Mukalla.

We will see. I’m of the conviction that GCC country leaders are far more influential on the southerners. They can pressure and influence them to participate in the dialogue. If they hear a very clear message–if the southerners who will go to Rio next week hear a very clear message that they can come, they can say whatever they want, they can discuss all their grievances, and there are grievances, which is addressing your question–but all grievances can be ameliorated by sitting together and listening and giving and taking. So that’s where we stand–long answer to a short question.

NL: You actually covered so many points, I’d like to pick up on a few of them. To begin with though: how has the structure for the national dialogue worked out, for example the division of seats for the north and the south? Also, there are so many different points that the national dialogue can choose to focus on–security, peace, etc. So how is the aim of it being worked out?     

AKA-E: Well, first of all, the number of delegates is 565, and 62 of those will be appointed by the president himself because there are factions that are not politically formed and politically identifiable. But there are personalities. There are some religious groups, there are Sheikhs, those who must appear in the picture. That will be taken care of by the president.

The 500 are divided between nine factions. I think number one is GPC (General People’s Congress). The joint meeting parties, mainly the main three: which is Islah, Muslim Brothers; YSP (Yemen Socialist Party), the former socialist party which ruled the south before unification; and the north. Then they have small political parties–there are four candidates each. But those three together, they are more than GPC. The house, each have their share, which is significant–about 35 candidates, and they just arrived in the scene.

NL: The GPC–the General People’s Congress, which is the former President Saleh’s party, that has 112 seats, which is the biggest block. Some observers have criticized elements of the former regime and Saleh himself for obstructing the course of a peaceful transition and the workings of the national dialogue. Worse efforts have been made to address such sources of obstruction.

AKA-E: First of all, let’s differentiate between language and action. In language, you hear a lot, which is maybe obstruction. But in fact in implementing the first phase of GCC and its implementation program, or whatever you call it, and the military changes that have taken place, they are significant. And they have targeted forces, mainly under the so called Republican Guard. Yes, they exist for a week, for ten days, for three, four meetings, but they have always given up.

Now, could this be a very strong obstacle to conduct the national dialogue? I don’t think so. No one today can obstruct the national dialogue, whether it is the GPC, the Islah, or the Socialists. I think that international eyes and ears are very wide open, and gradually now, everyone is realizing to challenge the international community is not that wise. And this is a rare case where the Security Council is unanimous.  They have not been unanimous for the last five or ten years.

NL: You mentioned the military. The restructuring of the military is the key to the success of the national dialogue. Why would you say that the president has been slow in dealing with this issue?

AKA-E: In the military there are two issues, actually. You know, around March last year, mid-March, the military split, and the split was down the middle–one cousin of the president in one camp with all his forces, and the camp with the president on the other side. And now, the issue first of all, is unifying the army under a single command as the minister of defense and high command of the president. Some changes have taken place, but I cannot say that the army is under the command of the commander in chief. That’s one issue which I believe soon it will be complete.

The question of restructuring the army –  there have been Jordanian and American experts working very hard on this. Now, there is on paper the structure–I believe it will be signed if it has not yet been signed by the president. But implementation will take several months. So, to restructure the army will take several months. But to reunify the army in order to split it into different units should be done as soon as possible. The army in Yemen was the strangest army I think in the world. The Republican Guard, the main force, and the so called first brigade commander, and they are both cousins. I haven’t seen an army like that.

NL: You mentioned Jordan, America, as well as the GCC. I’d like to take a step back and ask you how you see the role of external actors, in particular the UN and again the Gulf Cooperation Council. And how do you regional and international dynamics affect the mediation efforts?

AKA-E: First of all, external actors, let’s start with the GCC: the intervention of GCC, or the involvement of GCC, was an official request from the president and ministers before the coalition was formed–that means the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The foreign minister in a meeting was instructed to go meet with Abdullah bin Zayed and say, “We have not been able to reconcile with each other. How about you coming, because that affects your security and stability?” which they gladly accepted, which was unusual for the GCC countries to be directly involved, all of them. One of them could do whatever he wants, like Qatar, but not all of them. So the whole idea was a Yemeni-initiated idea, which eventually produced the GCC initiative. I’m sure you have read it–it is just an outline, of how the peaceful transfer takes place, just an outline.      

Then I would say the balking of Ali Abdullah Saleh, not to sign on the 22nd of May the GCC initiative, created a problem that even the UN started feeling that this is very dangerous, everybody has signed, he was the only one who has refused to sign on May 22, 2011. So there was a decision for a fact-finding mission, then the involvement of [Jamal] Benomar, the implementation unit mechanism was one of the reasons Ali Abdullah Saleh refused to sign.

There were two reasons: one reason, that the opposition must come and attend–the opposition had signed already, they refused to attend–so he used that as an excuse; but then he said, “This is only an outline, I want an implementation program for the GCC initiative,” and that’s how the United Nations eventually was involved.

So, this was a Yemeni initiative again. Nobody came to impose on Yemenis any action. Benomar started on a fact-finding mission, then developed ideas on the implementation. That lasted from August until the 23rd of November, when all that was signed. In the interim, there was the bombing of the mosque and all those things. So I would say, initially, it was Yemenis who initiated all these steps.

Now, the role of external actors have become very critical, extremely so. In order to maintain the course of development of this peaceful transfer of power: now again, it was the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, which was saying the final confrontation between the opposition and the government then was–Ali Abdullah Saleh had given up and said, “Okay, I will give up. I’m not standing at 2013. I will give up even before 2013, provided it is through ballot box.”

By then, the youth revolution and euphoria and so on–they refused it, because they thought that okay, the regime will fall like it did in Tunisia, like it did in Egypt. But, Yemen was quite different. There are two camps, I wouldn’t say equally strong, but very strong. And that’s why eventually the transfer, peaceful transfer of power, took place in Yemen, not by external pressure. Really, it was also locally generated program, which eventually put the vice president and the first deputy president of the ruling party in position. And therefore, it was not that there was an upheaval that the regime collapsed or disappeared.

NL: You stressed the importance of the national dialogue, and the initiative being Yemeni led. What can be done to develop national and local mediation capacities? And you already talked on the south and Hirak, but what about the Hutis and the youth groups as well?  

AKA-E: First of all, in the final document in which we submitted to the president, the Hirak southerners will be 50 percent of the 500–of the 565, there will be 50 percent. If you take the population ratio, the difference between south and north is one to six. But in order to attract the confidence of the south and the Hirak, there is a difference, not the whole south is the Hirak. The share of the Hirak in the 500 is 85, and the rest of the 250 are southerners belonging to political parties, independent, and so on.

So, there are today, almost half of the preparatory committee were southerners. Two of them are, you can call them coded Hirak, but not announced. So, the preparatory committee was almost 50-50; the congress dialogue will be 50-50; the committee which deals with southern issues is 50-50… 50 from the north, 50 from the south, and the chairman will be a southerner.

So, all these let’s say “giveaway positions” is in order to convince the south to commit. Now, with the Houthis, they’re already involved. There’s no problem whatsoever. During the contact committees, we flew to Sa’dah, we met with their Imam. And he committed himself to the national dialogue, nominated two in the preparatory committee, and they participated fully. Therefore, there’s no problem with Hirak.

Youth are twenty percent of the composition. There are 40 seats for independent youth, but every political party should add up that the national dialogue will be 20 percent youth at least, and at least 33 percent women. Therefore, the composition of the national dialogue in my view is very unique, and first in the history of Yemen.

I have been involved in dialogue since 1991. This kind of dialogue is unique.

NL: As for my final question, you talk about the uniqueness of the Yemeni process, but I’d like to zoom out again to the region. Do you think that this is something that could perhaps still be applicable to Syria, for example?

AKA-E: I don’t think so. In Yemen, since 1990, every time we had a problem between the ruling party and the opposition, we have gone into dialogue. Yes, sometimes we improve the situation, and sometimes we fail, like 1993-94. So, the dialogue culture in Yemen is, I think, a legacy, because even tribal conflicts are resolved by dialogue, culturally. Therefore, I think the fertile soil was in the legacy of Yemeni culture, to solve problems by dialogue. Syria, we have never heard of something like that, in addition to the nature of the problem, of course, it’s not only that Syrians have no dialogue–or the regime for the past 40 years never promoted dialogue, but the nature of the problem is far more different.

NL: You mention national dialogues in the past, and how quite often they’ve been unsuccessful. What makes this national dialogue different, and how do you think it will succeed this time in Yemen?

AKA-E: First of all, inclusivity–very important. Even the Jews will be represented, and there are only 300 of them left. But they will be represented in the national dialogue. Religious minorities during the royalist rule who were heretic, like the Ismailis, will be represented. There is a small minority in Aden of Iranian Shi’ite–not Iranian nationality- the Zaidis. They will be represented. So, this one is very highly representative, including the youth and women. That’s one reason. Third, the ground is being prepared for a major, major change in the constitution, in the form of government, in checks and balances, in equal rights in a more pronounced way. So I’m optimistic because it’s different.

NL: Perhaps we should end in an optimistic note. Thank you very much for the interview.

AKA-E: Thank you very much.