Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 25
V. Mediation Attempts
Efforts to end the war have taken on numerous forms. The government gave a green light to various mediation committees consisting of tribal, religious and political leaders; Libya and especially Qatar intervened; and the government set up groups to survey damage, assess costs and launch reconstruction. Each failed. It is important to understand why.
A. Tribal and Political Mediation Committees
From the outset, and to its credit, the government pursued an authentically Yemeni negotiated solution.136 Before, during and after each round of fighting, it established indigenous mediation committees, building on the country’s tradition of dialogue between competing individuals and groups.137 Ultimately, insufficient political will on both sides undid the committees’ work.
Mediation efforts took off in early 2004, as tensions rose between Husein al-Huthi and the government. Local informal efforts were reminiscent of traditional dispute-resolution mechanisms between tribes that historically were conducted by Hashemites who, as outsiders, were deemed independent – even though, this time, the Hashemites were party to the conflict.138 In June 2004, the government set up a committee comprising a mix of local and national figures, several close to al-Huthi.139 In parallel, a civil
136 In a senior government official’s words, “by favouring mediation, the president wanted to show there is no military solution to the conflict”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 7 January 2009.
137 It is difficult to determine precisely how many mediation committees have been active since 2004, a symptom of their decentralised nature. Some received their mandate directly from the president; others acted on their own initiative. The overall number ranges from five (Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, director of the Bureau of National Security and presidential office, Sanaa, 14 January 2009) to “seven or eight” (Crisis Group interview, Rashad al-Alimi, vice-prime minister for security and defence, Sanaa, 11 January 2009).
138 Steven Caton, Yemeni Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation (New York, 2005).
139 These included his brother Yahya, also a member of parliament; Muhammad al-Mansur, a prominent Zaydi scholar and al-Haqq party member; and Abd-al-Karim Jadban, a parliament member for the ruling party and a founder of the Believing Youth. Crisis Group interview, tribal sheikh from Saada governorate, Sanaa, 9 January 2009.
society initiative endorsed by the president gathered leading figures from the ruling and opposition parties. According to participants, the initiatives foundered essentially due to lack of coordination – and consensus – between government and army. Access to Saada was unsafe and, just as mediators were scheduled to meet with Husein al-Huthi, the army began shelling rebel positions (see below), arguably in order to scuttle the effort.140
The government established similar political committees during subsequent rounds, each with a different makeup – and each with a similar fate. They faced multiple challenges, for example absence of telephone communications with the rebel leadership after security forces cut the lines.141 They were complemented by local committees comprising tribal and religious elements, which loosely coordinated their work with the more political track.142
A third type of committee, spearheaded by Judge Hamoud al-Hitar, aimed at opening a dialogue with detained Believing Youth militants and convincing them there was no religious basis for taking arms against the government. In line with government policy, it lumped together Huthi-led rebels and al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadis. The committee was viewed in a somewhat positive light both domestically and internationally as an original means of fighting terrorism.143 Al-Hitar claimed success, estimating that half those involved were convinced to halt their violent activity,144 although figures are unverifiable. However, the U.S. and many analysts ultimately were more sceptical, arguing that a number of militants involved in the process continued to fight, notably by going to Iraq.145 The project was discarded in April 2007 after al-Hitar was named minister of religious endowments (awqaf) and the regime altered its anti-terror policy, opting for more forceful
140 Crisis Group interview, civil society activist and mediation committee member in 2004, Sanaa, 8 January 2009.
141 News Yemen, 15 February 2007.
142 During the fifth round, tribal sheikhs from Saada had some success, reportedly dissuading the president from creating a “popular army” and persuading him a ceasefire was possible. Crisis Group interview, journalist affiliated with the Yemeni Socialist Party, Sanaa, 17 January 2009.
143 See Laurent Bonnefoy, “Yemen’s nervous balancing act”, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2006.
144 Yemen Observer (Sanaa weekly), 4 June 2008.
145 Chris Boucek, Shazadi Beg and John Borgan, “Opening Up the Jihadi Debate: Yemen’s Committee for Dialogue”, in Tore Bjorgo and John Horgan, eds., Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (New York, 2009).