On Monday last week, gunmen kidnapped a European oil employee in Sana’a hours after the town was rocked by explosions — the second abduction of a Westerner in four days. Meanwhile, US drones roam Yemeni skies with impunity, killing militants and civilians alike.
Inside the lawyer’s office, the assembled company exploded with anger when someone mentioned the conference’s final communique, the Benomar document, and its proposals of federalism.
“How can you talk about federalism if you don’t even have a state apparatus?” the broad-shouldered, deep-voiced host said from his spot in one corner of the room.
“There is a land grab, and it’s a political sham. While [people] are killing each other in the streets, [the elite] sit and negotiate in Sana’a,” he said.
The powerful tribal and political figures who attended the national dialogue conference were the same people who were in a mad race to grab land and impose de facto realities on the ground, pulling and dragging Yemen in different directions like a group of thieves pulling on an old stolen jacket and tearing it apart.
“They are creating a new situation in Yemen, based on regionalism. With all the negative aspects of the Yemeni political parties and internal struggles, it was better than what will happen next — because the next conflicts will be between those of the same region ... apart from the conflict between different regions,” Yemeni history authority and journalist Sami Ghaleb said.
A black-and-white portrait of stern former Yemeni president Ibrahim al-Hamdi, forever clad in military gear, hung above their heads — a reminder of unattained dreams for their country. In the 1970s, al-Hamdi tried to build a modern state. He tried to curtail the tribes’ power, but was assassinated a few years into his rule.
Bottles of water, cans of juice and coke, as well as cigarettes and plastic bags holding qat (a narcotic chewing leaf) were arranged before each man. The men followed their rituals methodically, debating and chewing the herbal stimulant. They talked about the north, the former Yemen Arab Republic, where a sectarian war is raging between the Huthis — Zaydi Shia rebels — and Salafis in neighboring areas. Fearing Huthi expansion, an alliance of tribes and militia fighters associated with the leading Sunni Islamic party al-Islah had joined the fight alongside the Salafis.
The war was no more a sectarian war, one of the men added, because the tribes, many of whom were Zaydis themselves, were fighting through fear of Huthi expansion and what its members represented as a rival power. The war was now both religious and tribal. Hums of agreement rose from the audience.
In the south, the separatists were demanding full independence and showing signs of evolving quickly into an armed insurgency with xenophobic talk of southern purity and frequent attacks on government posts.
Someone at the meeting asked rhetorically: “When faced by indiscriminate force by the army and police what do you do?”
Years of peaceful demonstrations had yielded them nothing but more oppression and more land grabs by the northern sheiks, a writer at the meeting said.
That week, a tank shell had killed 14 civilians gathered for a funeral of a killed fighter.
However, the separatists were splitting — tribes from the oil-rich southern province of Hadramout had taken over government institutions, laid siege to oil fields and were calling for autonomy for their own region.