Interview with Amat al-Alim al-Soswa on Yemen’s National Dialogue

“The national dialogue’s importance lies in the fact that it is the one which will hopefully lead to stability and peace in Yemen,” said Amat al-Alim al-Soswa, a former minister and ambassador for Yemen who until 2012 was assistant secretary-general, assistant administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, and director of its regional bureau for Arab states.

“Peace and stability will only be the result of the discussion on all the issues, including not only the buildup of the structure of the system, meaning the political system, but also, it will discuss issues of the Southern movement, the issues of Sa’ada, the issues and relations to the transitional justice, and the preparations, really, for the country that respects the human rights of its citizens,” she said of the dialogue, which is due to start March 18.

“In addition to that, there will be, of course, a very important discussion in depth of the future regarding not only the political well-being, but also, it will have to discuss all the tensions that Yemen suffered from, including the northern Sa’ada issue.”

She said the discussion will also address the “whole philosophy behind economic and social development…especially because of the nature of the challenges which face Yemen, in particular the poverty issues, the scarcity of the water, and other major vital issues.”

Mrs. al-Soswa stressed the importance of continuing to hope that a common rationale will emerge from the dialogue and move Yemen through this challenging transition.

“I think we should hope that with the engagement of the Yemeni youth and women, that we will see a different level of transition,” she said.

The interview was conducted by Amal al-Ashtal, Research Assistant at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Amal al-Ashtal: We are delighted to have Mrs. Amat al-Alim al-Soswa participate in this interview for IPI’s Global Observatory. Mrs. al-Alim served as assistant-secretary general, assistant administrator for the UNDP, and director of its regional bureau for Arab states between 2006 and 2012. In her native Yemen, al-Soswa had served in various leadership positions, which include among others, Yemen’s first minister of human rights, ambassador to Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, undersecretary in the Ministry of Information, chair of Yemen’s first women’s national committee, and head of Yemeni women’s union. Welcome, Mrs. Amat al-Alim.

If I can start with asking you that many observers claim that the future stability of Yemen is beholding to the national dialogue. Can you explain to our listeners what is the purpose of the national dialogue, how it will work, and what makes it so critical to Yemen’s future.

Amat al-Alim al-Soswa: Thank you very much, and thank you for IPI for this opportunity.

You’re absolutely right. The national dialogue’s importance lies on the fact that it is the one which will hopefully lead to stability and peace in Yemen. That could be done, of course, through the agreement, not necessarily 100%, but at least on the majority sides of the participants, whereby at least 90% of those who will attend this conference, they have to agree on five major issues, including the issue of rewriting and drafting a new constitution, which will then specify, inform the new political system, which will concentrate its efforts on building a democratic society, a society that respects its citizens, where the citizens also participate fully for the success of themselves and also for their fellow countrymen and women.

So the national dialogue conference, in my opinion, truly is a major event that Yemen is preparing itself to participate in. And if you ask me, what will happen, God forbid, if the national dialogue doesn’t really succeed, the answer will definitely be very difficult in the sense that there shouldn’t be any answer except peace and stability. Peace and stability will only be the result of the discussion on all the issues, including not only the buildup of the structure of the system, meaning the political system, but also it will discuss issues of the Southern movement, the issues of Sa’ada, the issues and relations to the transitional justice, and the preparations really for the country that respects the human rights of its citizens.

And, in addition to that, there will be a very important discussion in depth of the future regarding not only the political well-being, but also it will have to discuss all the tensions that Yemen suffered from including the northern Sa’ada issue, and in addition to that, the whole philosophy behind economic and social development, which will really have to be in the essence of all the other discussions, especially because of the nature of the challenges which face Yemen, in particular the poverty issues, the scarcity of the water, and other major vital issues.

AA: In order to have such a successful national dialogue, there is a need for inclusivity, which leads me to the question of inclusivity, and we have heard that Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkul Karman had recently announced she was boycotting the national dialogue in opposition to the representation of youth, women and civil society in the dialogue. Do you think the national dialogue is adequately inclusive and representative of the key players in Yemen?

AAS: I can say that the representatives of the different stratas and political parties, which have agreed to participate in the upcoming national dialogue conference, are actually those who have been represented also in the membership of the preparatory committee of the national dialogue. Now, as you all know, when two of the independent youths resigned from that committee on the backdrop of what they called the intervention of the international organizations, meaning that the intervention of the UN representatives in deciding the percentage issue, which of course was a very thorny issue anyway, and I’m sure Yemeni political parties, especially the ones who I said were in membership of this committee, actually they did not give themselves enough time to discuss that issue and rushed immediately to the solution, which they found was going to take less time.

They decided to ask the special envoy to the secretary-general for his take on that issue, and they told him whatever you are going to tell us, the whole political party sitting around this table will agree on it. So the youth, who are really present at that meeting, rejected that, and they resigned over that particular incident, and they started actually before that exact day of saying that, this preparatory committee doesn’t unfortunately include fully the very meaningful actors who should really be sitting around the table.

This is a very serious point, because also it is the same issue which will leave behind its roundtable discussions some of the very important elements of the Yemeni society, including, for example, the roles of the tribes, the representation of certain important governorates. I have said this morning, all governorates are important, but in Yemen, because of the nature of the political and social system, you have seen during the last few years some exclusions, if you will, in terms of development projects, political participation, and even other economic opportunities for very rich governorates, including Marib governorates, al-Jawf governorates. As a matter of fact, the population of these two governorates in particular are in an open war with the regime and the government in Sana’a, which doesn’t make any sense, because if you really want to bring every actor to the table of discussion, you have to include even those who carry a totally different view from yours. Because if these elements, if these members of those political inclinations are not really present, they will not be obliged to be part of the solutions. It is very important really to find the solution for this.

Their president, until now, still has about 62 seats to decide on. I’m sure he will put in his mind this very important lack of representation, but I think then it will require him and the government as well to do some very serious preparatory work outside formal preparations for the national dialogue. Throughout the reach out to the different shieks of the tribes, throughout the engagements of some religious scholars, throughout the inclusion of some businessmen, especially those who are very influential who have also participated in the economic development of Yemen, because in all of these elements it is actually good and better for Yemen to have everyone to come out and agree on the outcome of that report.

As a matter of fact, I expected Tawakkul Karman to resign from the preparatory committee, because it was also from the beginning very clear, those who were represented in the preparatory committee, they were only those who have been signatories for the GCC initiative. But it has not included, unfortunately, those who are not really signatories of this initiative, and that doesn’t mean it’s only those people who are sitting around the table who can represent Yemen. You have the vast majority of Yemenis who are not members of political parties, because you know, even the political life in a very organized political life of Yemen is a very recent one, and the vast majority of Yemenis are young. While they are going to represent 20% of the membership of this committee, of this national dialogue, Yemenis in general are young. You have at least 65% for all Yemenis who are really under the age of 25. And you cannot only pretend that by 20% of the entire representation that you’ll be able to speak of issues that are related to youth. It’s a very young society as you can tell.

The same thing as applicable for women. Now, the women issue has been sorted out through the 30% quota, which had been imposed literally by some of the members of the preparatory committee. If this issue of inclusion is not going to be dealt with, I’m sure it will have some consequences on the level of the seriousness of the outcome of the national dialogue. Maybe the national dialogue conference will still take place, even with this amount of representation. But will it be truly then agreed upon by the vast majority of people who were not there? I doubt it. So, it’s very important really to tackle this issue through other mechanisms; could be also informal mechanisms. Not only through those who will be attending in Sa’ana or any other governorates, within the number of 565 people. 

Yemen, in my opinion, is much larger, and it is very important to sort out some of the issues related to the level of insecurity, if you will, because it is the same reason that will lead to any security proposal. You cannot ignore the fact that you have so many little wars, and some of them were big wars against certain armed groups, including the AQIP. And in the past as well, there was 6 wars against the Houthis in the north. You have also, currently, military campaigns against certain insurgents or some members of those armed groups. If you are not capable, truly, of sorting out this issue through peaceful means, and preparing these people, and demobilizing them and reintegrating them into the civil way of thinking, that will continue to be a very difficult challenge for the outcome of the national dialogue. This is also part of the inclusion issue that Tawakul has been referring too. Although I was thinking that she might have resigned earlier and not waited that long.

AA: Obviously, the flip side of inclusivity is perhaps over-representation, and a lot of people have been concerned that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh still has the General People’s Party, and along with a few other partners have 112 delegates in the 565 seat conference, the largest of any bloc. What role do you think the former president will play in his party in the national dialogue conference?

AAS: First of all, it is important to differentiate between former President Saleh and the role that he continues to play, and the role in which the General People’s Congress (GPC) should continue to play in the political life. It is a dilemma and it is also a challenge even for President Hadi, who is currently the president of Yemen, but as the same time he is the vice-president of the General People’s Congress, and we know the level of communication that exists between the two men. This is only to simplify the difficult situation that both are in. And remember when the Americans occupied Iraq and there was a big talk about the Baathification. I hope this idea will not really be present in the discussion when it comes to the GPC, but I think on the other hand, and not just because of this very special relationship between the GPC and the current president and the former president, because both men are belonging to the same party and the complexities which will be emanated from this very special relationship, but also because of the transitional justice, because of the issues of the national reconciliation. There will have to be, of course, another important element which should be added and dealt with.

In my opinion, even before we go to the national dialogue conference–and this is the law of the transitional justice, meaning that political parties have to put their political ambitions and disagreements aside, and they have all to agree on truly trying to discuss the crimes of the past the way they should be dealt with, in a way to lead a very new page of political relations between the different factions.

As you know, the Yemeni society has inherited, like so many other human society as well, so many political revenge issues, wars, differences, even civil upheavals. All these issues can only be dealt with on the same level of justice because the initiatives has dealt much on the peace issue, not necessarily on the expense of justice, but it seems like it did not really put the emphasis it deserved when it comes to the justice issue. So this is a very important thing and also the government of Yemen has to be able, as well, to address the major violations against the administrators, and it will have to be able to really to continue to present itself as the government for the entire Yemeni population, regardless of the Yemenis different political or social background.

AA: What role do you think regional and international actors play to ensure the successful execution of the national dialogue?

AAS: First of all, I think, the international support, which is of course another track, if you will, of the national program that has to continue truly to be, in my opinion, a guarantor of the entire political process. The international support cannot be, and shouldn’t at all be viewed or seen, as a local part or shouldn’t really interfere with this very sensitive national issue. If it important though for the international actors to continue their support on the terms of the technicalities, the preparations, the support and cooperations that Yemen would need. And perhaps also, must importantly, to really save Yemen’s deteriorating economy, more than just tackling the political issues, an absence of the economic issues.

Now having said that, it is also the duty of the national government to truly clarify these roles, where it represents as well, the many questions, including questions of sovereignty, questions of the rights of its own citizens, but at the same time, it should really embrace the international community’s support, politically, economically, without sending the wrong message, that Yemenis are not really in control of their business.

You know the issues of the national dialogue will only be successful if its truly emanated from the really desire of the Yemeni people. All Yemenis, regardless of their features, backgrounds, economic class, social place, and otherwise– it is very important, truly, for the Yemenis to have this entire process under their own responsibility. And to really also use the very rising level of support that they’re getting, either from the United Nations and the Security Council or beyond. But to me, it is very important to have this political process and track, the economic track, going hand-in-hand, without any separation. Otherwise, the gap will be widened, and the expectation will be more, and unfortunately then the failure will be maybe the most outcome of any process like that.

AA: The Security Council continues to warn against spoilers of the national dialogue and the political transition. Who are the spoilers that could derail the process, and how can we be sure to keep it on track?

AAS: It is natural at any political process that you have those who are in favor or those who do not really want the process to take over and to move forward. Yemen is no exception. There is no way you could think of any society where you would find 100%, full-fledged support by every single Yemeni to a process like this, especially when we’re talking about a political process where you have so many diverse political interests, and especially in a country like Yemen. And especially in a country where there are also some regional influence and international influence by the nature of the existence of the Yemeni country, by itself.

Even geographically speaking, because of its importance for the international route for trade, because of the relationship with the neighboring states who are very rich and oil-producing countries, and because of the new issues rising from the fact that there is infiltration for the AQIP, which is viewed by the whole world now as a major challenge.

And then, how could all those members be really spoilers of the national dialogue? Could be also elements of the former regime, could be elements from some of those whole are still in the regime, because the Yemeni revolution and uprising was not similar to those which have taken place in other places, including Syria or Libya, meaning that the whole political structure has changed fully. There was some change and there was some stagnancy as well. This is why you would find those who have lost interest, who have lost some position, who have lost some power, definitely they would continue to aspire to not really let this process to continue to its direct end.

Again, the answer would be by including everyone at this process. There should be any ceiling or any taboo, or any negation for any elements that really shows the interest of being part of this dialogue, and why not to expand the participants. It’s not at the end of the day a holy book that we’re going to deviate from when we change for the better of the Yemenis engagement.

And also, maybe extending the time in which Yemenis would need to discuss all these important issues. Why should we only make it six months in a country with all these complexities. In other countries with maybe less complexities, the transitional period was taking up to 6 years. In Yemen, its unfortunately designed to complete the whole work in less than a year, especially the second stage of the transition. Because yes, the first stage of the transition has ended with the election of the president, with him taking some very serious and tough decisions in the military restructure, and also security restructure. But the national dialogue and the whole concept of national reconciliation, commissions for truth, just turning the page–it is not easy for a country like Yemen to just turn another page. Unless it’s meant just to do a very superficial work, and in that case, that wouldn’t be the answer for really the serious issues that Yemen face.

AA: And finally, what is your outlook on the likely outcomes of the national dialogue and the ongoing process of political transition in Yemen?

AAS: We have to continue to hope that Yemen will finally set the way straight for its own future by the full engagement of the whole citizenship of Yemen on an equal basis of the right to discuss any issues based on patriotism. You know, every Yemeni is a patriot, and that should be the start.

Though Yemen truly is challenged at this very particular time, and especially with the absence of a major participant in this whole dialogue process, which is the Southerns. The Southerns in general–although you have some members who are already there sitting on the preparatory committee and some are sending some names of participants–but it truly is very, very crucial for the southern Hiraks to be full engaged if they wish to, because the other answers would be a truly devastating end, unfortunately, for the question of unity in particular. Unfortunately, today’s world doesn’t allow for more adventures and new experiences in a place where you seldom had a sense of stability. So it’s very, very important for all of us to continue to hope that there will be, again, this common rationale between all of us, which will lead, hopefully, Yemen to move through this very difficult transition.

And, again, I think we should hope that, with the engagement of the Yemeni youth and women, that we will see a different level of transition. Who knows? Maybe it will be a totally different and successful transition, with all these elements who have hoped for the change, and who made the change through very peaceful means.

AA: With that message of hope, we end the interview, and we thank you so much on behalf of IPI for giving us this interview.

AAS: Thank you so much also for IPI, for yourself, for your dedication, and truly for giving me this opportunity to come to the IPI and speak to the wonderful people who joined us this morning.