Coffee Corner again, this time with Baraa Shaiban and Somaia Al Hosam. It’s been two weeks since our last meeting.Two weeks of talking for the delegates at Yemen’s National Dialogue. Two weeks of talking that don’t seem to have got very far.
Judith Spiegel in Sana’a
Baraa and Somaia are two of the forty independent youth participants in Yemen’s National Dialogue, the comprehensive conference that is meant to come up with solutions for Yemen’s many problems over the next five months. They sigh when asked how things are going. There are delays in most of the working groups, including Baraa’s (reconciliation and transitional justice).
Revenge or forgiveness?
Actually, especially in Baraa’s. His group is supposed to deal with the mistakes of the country’s past. This automatically involves discussion about legal investigations of certain figures. Should they be prosecuted or is reconciliation the best way forward? “In my group, if the name Ali Abdollah Saleh is dropped, it’s like dropping a bomb, people go crazy”, Baraa says. Either because they want to see the former president hang, or the opposite - they want him back in the palace. It all depends which side, or party, they represent.
“There is a woman in our group, she would give her life for Saleh”, Baraa says. “She suggested that in order to have real reconciliation, we should recommend Ali Abdollah Saleh for the Nobel Prize because he gave up power peacefully. She was serious!” Baraa sometimes cannot believe his ears. “When the issue of torture in prisons was brought up, the same woman didn’t understand the problem. She asked: What do you expect in a prison?” Not hard to imagine how a lot of time is spent on heated discussions in his group, causing endless delays.
Hostages to justice
The disagreements are not only between old political opponents, but also between the representatives of the South and the youth delegates. Again it centres on the possibility of legal investigations. The Southerners want to investigate crimes committed against them since 2007; the young people want to focus on 2011, the year of the uprising.
It drives Baraa slightly crazy. “In fact this should not be a problem. The result would be the same anyway. The same people will be found guilty.” Transitional justice in the sense of legal investigations is holding his group hostage. Reconciliation à la South Africa is far away.
Other groups are suffering delays too, but for other reasons. “The Sa’ada group for example had a meeting outside, next to the swimming pool. It started to rain and they decided to go home. So yes, that group has delays too, but that is because they don’t do anything”, Baraa says.
“We do have fruitful discussions too. For example, we all agree that the counter-terrorism policy of this country – and inherent to that is the policy of the United States – is not good”, Baraa happily recounts. His attitude is a common one these days: when all agree something is bad, this is considered a success.
In Somaia’s group (good governance), this is very clear. She says her group is going smoothly and on schedule, the initial deadline for agreeing their recommendations was 25 May. This has now been postponed until 10 June.
Somaia: “In my group, topics are discussed which everyone agrees about, like good safeguards against corruption and more transparency of government budgets. So it is easy to reach compromises, even though most members of my group are related to political parties.”
So, in her group everyone agrees corruption and non-transparency are bad. Now comes the big question: how to fight them? “We will show which institutions were notoriously corrupt and which people were, and we will have a live feed to show people what we are doing”, Somaia says.
As in Baraa’s group, the experiences of past seem to be the main concern for Somaia’s group. Maybe it is too early to say, but solutions for the future are still far away. “You should see the dialogue as a place where all ideas are being collected, and in the end something will come out of that.”
End of the old boys?
Both Baraa and Somaia are still confident about the role of the independent youth participants in the process. Somaia noticed last week that some older men in her group had shaved off their beards and moustaches. “To look younger, maybe they will wear jeans soon”, she smiles.
Is this is a sign that Yemeni politics are slowly becoming the territory of the young rather than the old? That would be a major shift in a country, indeed in a region, where the old boys normally rule.