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Yemen's protagonists to agree on roadmap

UN-backed meeting between leaders of main factions could be the last chance for political disputes to be settled.
Last modified: 18 Mar 2013 18:49

It has been an uphill climb for UN envoy Jamal Benomar, a diplomat with a knack for refereeing spats among Yemen's key protagonists.

He is finally sat down among leaders of the country's key factions in a UN-backed dialogue which began Monday over the constitution.

He has served as the UN Special Adviser to Yemen for two years, and has become something of a celebrity; I've even heard taxi drivers, politicians say the man should be given an honorary citizenship.

Pragmatic but also firm, he has played a crucial role in convincing feuding factions to sit together and solve their disputes.

Only months ago this was absolutely impossible. The country was marred by years of conflicts, civil war, and a rebellion in the north. 

In March 2011, inspired by prodemocracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets and demanded the former President Ali Abdallah Saleh to step down.

Power transfer

Saleh was very suspicious of the protesters, accusing them of being manipulated by foreign powers and then said they were seduced by the Muslim Brotherhood to stage a coup.

His reaction was violent. He ordered security forces to use force. Hundreds were killed but the calls for change never ceased, and reverberated across the country.

After months of clampdown, Saleh's authority was eroding.

He was abandoned by many of his aides and allies, and the Americans couldn’t support a man whose troops shelled villages and shot at protesters in videos being aired worldwide.

Saleh lost and was forced to resign and in February 2012, handed over power to his deputy Abdu Rabou Mansour Hadi.

The power transfer was planned to usher in a two-year transition with a more representative government and a council with the authority to solve Yemen’s problems.

That didn’t happen for some time.

The national dialogue conference was delayed many times due to huge differences among the main factions.

Political divides

Yemen’s political parties have always been divided along tribal, regional or sectarian lines.

The Houthis of the north are calling for greater religious freedoms and a bigger say in running their areas. They were brutally treated under the former president; their villages were destroyed and hundreds of their people were killed during their armed rebellion.

Now even as Saleh is out of power, they have little faith in the new government.

Meanwhile, the separatists of the south see a great opportunity to revive the republic of South Yemen that existed before 1990, the year their leaders agreed to join a united Yemen.

They say ever since they have been subjugated and discriminated. The oil fields located in their areas, they claim, are depleted by corrupt leaders from the north. 

A miracle is needed to convince the southerners to have faith in a united Yemen.

Yemen’s transition to democracy faces many more challenges.

Its leaders have to agree on major constitutional reforms and establish a political system that gives justice to all people.

Yemen’s leaders are well aware that this meeting could be their last chance to set aside differences.

Failure could see Yemen descend into chaos.

Follow Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra on Twitter: @hashemahel