It was like a scene from a great novel: Yemen’s most famous feminist screaming incandescently at the country’s most powerful tribal sheikh. Cameramen gathered round, eager to record history as Amal Basha told Shiekh Sadiq al-Ahmar exactly what she thought of him inside the conference hall that hosts the country’s already faltering National Dialogue.
Like most good rows, it started over something seemingly innocuous – the choosing of chair of a committee. The day before it seemed that consensus had been reached behind closed doors meetings that feminist Nabila al-Zubair would take charge of the body debating the future of the disputed city of Sada’h. But Ahmar, under pressure from his religiously conservative Islah party, changed his mind, sparking Basha’s ire.
For both the Islah movement and the Houthis of the north, Sada’h has particular resonance. It has been the scene of many of the most brutal clashes in the country in recent decades, with tens of thousands killed. For both sides, the city is roughly akin to what Leningrad meant to Stalin.
Both Islah and the Houthi leaders had agreed that an “independent” figure should chair the committee, but they were both pushing frantically for the right kind of independent to suit them. Ahmar initially backed Zubair but pulled away and tried to get a friendlier figure into the role.
Eventually, following his public flaying, the sheikh backed down and the secularists won this particular struggle. Speaking after Zubair’s appointment was confirmed, Basha smiled and commented, “the battle was won”.
While arguments should rarely be celebrated, the confrontation was a truly unique event. Rarely before has a citizen been treated on an equal footing to a high-level sheikh. The fact that she is a woman makes it even more special; in a highly patriarchal society such debates do not happen.
Outside the conference hall, it is unlikely the sheikh would have had to defend his actions. Normally he is surrounded by tens of heavily armed tribal bodyguards preventing critics from reaching him. But one of the conference’s rules is that all participants enter without any weapons, regardless of their status. In order to guarantee their safety the Movenpick Hotel – the most expensive hotel in Sana’a – has been turned into a fortress. Citizens are not allowed close to the premises and security forces prowl the perimeter. Yet even this has not stopped all violence. Last month, Abdo Abu Ras, the Houthis’ representative at the negotiations, survived an assassination attempt as he left the debates, though three people were killed in the attack.
The irony, of course, is that two years ago Basha and Ahmar were on the same side – calling for the downfall of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Ahmar’s decision, in May 2011, to formerly back the uprising was a key moment in Saleh’s downfall, with numerous other tribal leaders following suit in the months that followed.
Saleh has now gone — though he continues to have significant influence — and the two sides that shared a political cause are now at each other’s throats over social issues. In the middle of her tirade, Basha accused Ahmar of treachery for claiming to support the goals of the revolution yet refusing to back a woman for a senior position.
These kinds of disputes are perhaps an inevitable consequence of such a fundamental debate over the future of a diverse country that has suppressed debate for so long. The dialogue has brought 565 delegates from across Yemen’s diverse society together — revolutionaries, businessmen, sheikhs, politicians and warlords all rubbing shoulders. While the decision by key southern separatist groups to refuse to attend has hurt the dialogue’s legitimacy somewhat, it is still possibly the most diverse group of Yemenis ever found in one hall.
With a country in flux, strange alliances form and break apart in the hall. Revolutionary youth movements chat to those who two years ago were calling for them to be crushed, tribal sheikhs that were at war a year ago embrace as if long lost brothers. For the representatives of peaceful secular movements, they have to hope the negotiations can succeed – outside the Movenpick their words are much less powerful than the AK47s that Yemenis have become all too accustomed to solving their debates with.
Yet no matter the result, there are positives to be drawn from the forced interactions of the country’s myriad of different political groups. Pessimistic Yemenis are convinced that the dialogue will end in a vicious civil war, while those of a more optimistic nature hope to see meaningful solutions to the country’s biggest issues. Either way, the national dialogue is the most diverse political rally in the history of Yemen.
Farea al-Muslimi is Executive’s Yemen correspondent