The front row's for us: stories from Yemen's National Dialogue

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It's a Friday afternoon and Baraa Shaiban (28), Somaia Al Hosam (30) and Khaled Obali (37) have a day off. We meet at Coffee Corner, their usual hang-out during and after Yemen’s uprising. We’re going to have a dialogue about the dialogue.

By Judith Spiegel in Sana'a

Baraa, Somaia and Khaled are three of the forty independent youth participants in Yemen’s National Dialogue, the comprehensive conference that is meant to come up with solutions for Yemen’s many problems over the next five months.

On the inside
We read official statements in the media. We also read about problems between some members. We read about how the international community is trying to have its say in the dialogue. Now, we want to know what it is like for these young people to actually be there every day. 

The three look at ease, as if they have always been professional dialoguers. Baraa: "From the beginning we took the front rows so the sheiks had to sit in the back. Some didn’t like that, especially big guys like Saddiq Al Ahmar. But now they are used to it. Some even choose to sit in the back. They feel the front rows are for the youngsters."

It helps that this group, between 18 and 40 years old, are, according to Somaia "the most faithful dialoguers". She herself leaves home at 7 a.m., arriving at the venue at 7:30, "to prepare myself for the discussions of that day". The dialogue day begins officially at 9. 

Psycho alert
Baraa, Somaia and Khaled are joking about things that happened during their group sessions. (There are nine major working groups in the dialogue.) Like the sheikh who suggested applying transitional justice to all the wrongs done since the time of the Ottoman Empire. Baraa: "And he was serious. It was not a joke." 

Or the guy who became very upset because his name was mentioned three times. Khaled: "He kept on shouting that his name was mentioned three times in this session. So we said: yes, so what? We still don’t know what the problem was. I am telling you, there are a lot of psychos there."

Laughing, he offers another example of a former ambassador (who appears frequently as a political commentator in foreign media). "He thinks that everybody is an idiot, except him. And then he starts shouting that he is a doctor and will surgically remove the shoes from people’s brains, ha ha ha." 

Protesting participants
What also surprises the three of them are the demonstrations. Almost every day, they say, there is some kind of protest, "with banners and everything". Not by people from outside who want something from the participants inside the dialogue. That they would understand. Baraa: "No, they are the participants." 

"For example they demonstrate about the electricity problems. They want the presidency of the dialogue to solve them, or they threaten to resign. They think they are members of a parliament who can demand the government solves a problem. They don’t understand that they are the ones who should come up with solutions."

Insider trading
There are also outsiders who approach them with requests. Somaia: "People call me with a corruption case they want me to solve. And some doctors from my village called to ask me to make sure that they get better salaries." Baraa was called by a total stranger. "He asked me to arrange a job for his son."

Apparently not everybody has a clear idea of what is going on inside the dialogue. Baraa: "They know something big is going on, but they will wait for the outcome." Somaia: "In rural areas, there is not enough knowledge about the dialogue. Something should be done about that." 

On track
The dialogue began in March and Baraa is proud that they have managed to organise working groups and define the issues each group will discuss. "Nobody thought we would make that in time." Khaled is slightly more cautious. "But we haven’t discussed anything yet. The real discussion starts now."

We finish our cokes and cappuccinos. It has started to rain. We say goodbye and promise to see each other again in two weeks. Will the front rows still be occupied by the youth representatives? Will the sheikhs still want to discuss the Ottoman era? Will delegates still be demonstrating in the corridors? Baraa, Somaia and Khaled will keep us posted.