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Yemen and the prospects for war and peace

Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman tells MEE that a Yemen ceasefire requires the reinstatement of President Hadi and his government

Like almost everything else in Yemen, the war there seems to also be subject to conflicting interpretations. But what is certain is the fact that the bloody coup against the legitimate government of Yemen plotted by the Houthi militia and the forces of deposed president Ali Abdulla Saleh has failed.

It has proved to be immoral and unpopular. Today, the militia is losing the territory it seized. The coup and militarized actions have killed thousands, including civilians, destroyed towns and abducted politicians and activists. They dragged Yemen into an ugly proxy battle.

For Yemenis, the actual war began six months before the intervention of the “Arab Coalition Forces". To be more specific, it began in September 2014. That is when Houthi militia and the forces of Saleh marched into the capital Sanaa and occupied government institutions, an occupation made possible with Iranian support.

Obviously, this intervention damaged the government and undermined the political transition process. One should recall that Yemenis were ready to vote on a constitution as pretext for free and fair elections.      

The plot to overthrow the Yemeni state began long before the current crisis

On 11 February, 2011, Yemenis from all walks of life - different ages, regions and intellectual and political orientations - marched hand-in-hand. That began a peaceful revolution reckoned to be a first of its kind in the modern history of Yemen. It was a miracle that it was peaceful considering that at that time Yemeni people owned about 70 million weapons. The people opted for peaceful struggle to bring about the desired change.

The transition

In doing so, Yemenis realised that non-violent resistance was the best method to counter authoritarianism and oust the dictatorship, which had lost its legitimacy the moment it began killing peaceful protesters. The people were simply demanding change and exercising their rights, calling for a state of equal access and citizenship. They wanted a true path to democracy.

Saleh was forced to step down, and so his vice-president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, was elected as consensual transitional president. Soon after that, he won a referendum by six million votes. In this context, a consensus-based government was formed comprising all political parties. This paved the way for launching the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

About 565 delegates were nominated from various stakeholders including political parties, civil society organisations, women and youth. Notably, the Houthi militia was well represented at the conference. They exceeded the representation of a larger political party.

The NDC discussions lasted for about 10 months and based on its outcomes a new Yemeni constitution was drafted. The constitution emphasised the important principles of equal citizenship, rule of law and a transition towards a federal system - a system in which everyone could equally have shared access: power and wealth, but not without responsibility. This was achieved during the first two years of the transitional period. 

The armed forces

However, what was not achieved was the restructuring of the armed forces. The entire military establishment continued under the control of Saleh. During the three decades of his rule, he had managed to form a military loyal to him and not to the country or its people. The make-up of the army came mainly from his own family, tribe, region and loyalists.

Yemen has large provinces, notably Hadramout - but there are only a few military officers from it, while 25 percent of the armed forces – 90,000 men and 17,000 officers - come from a northern province that is the stronghold of Saleh’s supporters. This explains why Yemenis call it the “Family Army," the family of the ousted president Ali Saleh.

The transitional political process was closely supervised and monitored by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations secretary general through a special envoy to ensure the success of the dialogue. At that time, the Houthi militia continued its insurgency against the government and its institutions while Saleh and his supporters continued to obstruct the process of restructuring the military.

Broken promises

A few weeks prior to the date of the new constitution referendum, the Houthi militia with their ally Saleh reneged on their promises and occupied Sanaa. The Houthis, who had been an integral part of the political dialogue and actively participated in the writing of the first draft of the constitution, put the legitimate president under house arrest and began closing and confiscating media licenses, shutting down political parties' offices, withdrawing licenses of civil society organizations and closing their offices. Thousands were arrested. 

As a result, the UN Security Council issued two resolutions calling on the parties to retract all measures adopted during the coup, return all weapons to the transitional government, withdraw from all cities captured after the coup and release all detainees.

Saleh and the Houthis refused to comply and, instead, continued their armed insurgency.

President Hadi

During this time, President Hadi managed to escape house arrest in Sanaa. He fled to Aden and then to Riyadh after Houthi militia attacked his residence with rockets. Once the president was in Riyadh, Yemenis and the world learned about the Arab Coalition military intervention in Yemen.

However, the intervention was not the only major event occurring in Yemen; there were other, equally important events. After the Houthi invasion of Yemeni cities, a widespread popular resistance emerged, stretching from Ma'rib to Jawf, Dhaleh, Taiz and Aden. 

One year on

One year on, the suffering of Yemenis is great, due to shortages of basic necessities and services such as food, medical care, electricity and water along with other social and educational needs. 

The only accessible work is to trade in the black market or be part of the Houthi militia.

The Houthi leader believes that God has given him the right to rule Yemen. Similarly, since Saleh lost power, he is determined to destroy Yemen through his gangs and networks.

Yemen is looking forward to seeing the end of this war, particularly after hearing about an agreement that has been brokered to stop the fighting and resume negotiations in Kuwait on the basis of implementing the Security Council resolutions. This is welcoming and encouraging news.

The future

In order for peace to take hold, Yemen needs to lay the groundwork to prevent a return to war.

Peace talks should resume by abandoning all the measures taken to overthrow the government and adhering to the principles the Yemenis agreed to during the NDC. In that conference, Yemenis managed to come to a clear agreement and to explicitly affirm that the state is the only body that has the exclusive rights to own weapons and exercise sovereignty over the national territory.  

Individual citizens should enjoy all the substantial rights, including the right of free expression and the right of association and establishment of political parties. Democracy and elections are the only way for the transfer of power. 

Having said all this, I would like now to renew the call for an inclusive ceasefire in Yemen - provided that it coincides with the reinstatement of both the transitional president and government.  

In that vein, I would also call for returning all government weapons looted by the militia to the state and withdrawal from every city or town the militia has occupied. The Houthi militia should transform itself into a political party and should refrain from using violence to achieve political goals.

Subsequently, we can hold a referendum on the constitution. To build new and reliable institutions, the new constitution can provide us a framework to hold elections at multiple levels: local, regional, parliamentary and presidential. 

In this context, it is essential that all of these steps should coincide with taking adequate measures aimed at achieving transitional justice, one that ensures a genuine national reconciliation. Compensating the victims of war and violence would equally help achieve justice and reconciliation.

Finally, I call on the political transition sponsoring countries to help in the process of rebuilding the infrastructure of the country that was ravaged by the war and to provide economic support necessary for the success of the political process.

It is important to keep supporting Yemen in order for it to achieve a sustainable peace and a sound political system, one that can help us or provide the impetus for building a democratic Yemen with equal access for all.

- Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967–1975 and a regular columnist for Now Lebanon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Saudi Arabia's King Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz (R) and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser confer in March 1956 at Kubbeh Palace in Cairo (AFP/INTERCONTINENTALE).

- See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/burning-bridges-saudi-iranian-conflict-historical-terms-729682967#sthash.1AXEeKdf.dpuf

- Tawakkol Karman  is a Yemeni journalist, human rights activist and politician who became the international face of the 2011 Yemeni uprising that was part of the Arab Spring. She was the co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Yemeni civilians run for cover during a recent air attack (AFP)