On a recent Thursday afternoon in Sana’a, Yemen, a group of lawyers, journalists, unemployed pundits and one poet gathered to discuss the politics and times of Yemen in the office of a prominent lawyer that doubles as a weekly literary salon.
Under thick, eye-watering, blue and gray layers of cigarette smoke, the men resembled a stack of fallen domino pieces as they reclined sideways on mattresses arranged around the walls with their elbows resting on hard stuffed cushions.
They were committed democrats and passionate human rights advocates who had opposed the autocratic then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and documented his regime’s abuses and corruption long before the Arab Spring revolutions.
They were diverse bunch, often at odds with each other, with principles perhaps too naive to be considered serious politics, yet they shared a dream: A civil state in Yemen, one day.
The group was opposing the new regime that had emerged from the revolution, but their passions had waned and been replaced with a sense of defeat and betrayal symbolized and distilled into one word: Movenpick.
The Movenpick is a hilltop hotel in Sana’a, an architectural monstrosity of glass and concrete with manicured lawns, marbled foyers and gilded furniture worthy of an oil-boom town and designed exclusively for the privileged elites of Yemen.
From where it sits, contained by blast walls and with checkpoints manned by private security guards in wrap-around shades, the capital, Sana’a, appears as a far and dusty place inhabited by the downtrodden and wretched.
Over the past 11 months, the Movenpick meeting rooms and dining halls have been the setting for the national dialogue conference, which has brought together tribespeople, politicians and Islamists, along with representatives of civil society and the revolutionary youth.
The conference was a big part of a deal brokered by the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council that ushered in a transitional period after Saleh give up power to his then-unknown deputy, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who was later voted in as interim president, being the sole candidate in the election.
Under the terms of the transition, ministerial posts were apportioned between the opposition and ruling party, and the army — dominated by Saleh’s relatives — was given a facelift with a purge of some commanders.
Chaperoned by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, the national dialogue conference was supposed to address all the problems of Yemen and prepare for a new constitution and free elections.
Instead, dominated from the start by the old traditional powers, the dialogue finally concluded four months late on Saturday, publishing a report with about 1,400 recommendations which have extended the transitional period and allowed an extra year to draft a charter and vote on it.
Meanwhile, for those downtrodden inhabitants on view from the Movenpick’s gilded rooms, Yemen is still no closer to being a functioning state.
A spate of assassinations of politicians has plagued Sana’a, threatening the central government, which all but disappears once outside the large cities.
The weakness of the state was laid bare when the local al-Qaeda franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, recently stormed into a hospital at Yemen’s defense ministry compound, killing dozens of people. CCTV footage showed gunmen executing medics and patients.