Distancing the past for a brighter and democratic future
President of the Republic of Yemen Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi (author)
When the winds of change swept through Yemen in 2011, the country teetered on the edge of chaos. Rival groups ripped at the fragile seams holding the country together. Some feared civil war. But Yemenis believed there was a better way. Unlike its other Arab Spring peers, nearly two years later, Yemen is transforming and is slowly becoming a unique model for democratic transition in the Middle East.
There is no single model for democratic transition, and the Yemen model is distinctive both historically and in the present. Etched into our collective memory, Yemenis remember the democratic teachings of our most famous queen, Bilqis of Sheba. More recently, Yemen became the first and only Arab country to apologize publicly for past grievances.
After 2011, Yemen established a national coalition government which integrated leaders from the new opposition and the old guard. It also has brought new and old voices together from all sectors of society to debate national issues in a national dialogue. For example, Yemen’s youth activists have moved from protesting in the streets to discussing policies as a new generation of leaders. Additionally, an unprecedented number of women have taken center stage to discuss national issues and in the process have both solidified their positions and gained respect for their efforts. Moreover, as I have mentioned before, groups who fought each other in the not-so-distant past have put down their weapons and are now sitting at the same table. In short, Yemenis have moved outsiders into the inner circle, chosen debate over dispute and have made a choice to favor future ballots over bullets. This is no small feat for any country, particularly those in transition.
Though Yemen faces many challenges, on this International Day of Democracy—a day set aside by the UN General Assembly in 2007 to promote and celebrate democracy—Yemen has plenty to be proud of, and it is only right to commemorate this progress.
It is also fitting that this year the theme of the International Day of Democracy is “Strengthening Voices for Democracy.” The different voices of Yemen—women, government, civil society, youth, marginalized groups—have all raised their voices and are being heard in Yemen’s peaceful democratic transition.
The best way to see past the negative headlines and understand the democratic momentum taking place in the country would be to travel to Yemen today. Right now, the National Dialogue Conference is in its final stages and is deciding on its official recommendations for our new constitution and new electoral system. The Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum is already at work finalizing their outreach plan on how to encourage more Yemenis to register to vote in the next election. Some Yemenis are already preparing to run for political office.
Today, a women’s leadership academy launched a recruitment process to find and train a select group of Yemeni women on the best strategies and tools to run for political office. To ensure these voices are heard, a new coalition of influential women held a press conference today advocating for national support for at least, a 30 percent quota for female [representation] in all branches of government.
Youth have also raised their voices, both in and outside the National Dialogue. A diverse group of Yemeni youth is meeting today to announce recommendations for the future structure of the new state and the status of youth and women. Today they will finalize their strategy on how to turn these ideas into a reality for the new Yemeni government.Also happening today, a small but dynamic group of female activists from the North and the South have come together to talk about how best to create peace and reconstruction across the former borders of Northern and Southern Yemen. A cluster of Yemeni cultural leaders, who are working to raise awareness about peaceful dialogue (self-named Dialogue Messengers), are holding a public forum today to discuss the unfair treatment of the “Muhamasheen,” a group marginalized in Yemeni society. Many civil society organizations from across Yemen are coming together to network and share their ideas, goals and successes with each other at a democracy fair in Yemen’s capital city. These are some of the most important stories in Yemen, though you are unlikely to read about them in the Yemeni or international press.
All countries in transition are bound to have significant challenges—and Yemen is no different. But today, on the International Day of Democracy, we are celebrating the beginning of Yemen’s longer-term process and our hopes for the future. But at the end of the day, democracy is not about the processes or politics, it’s about the people and the country they are trying to build, today and every day.