Yemen’s National Council is different from the others that have appeared around the Arab world since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
Yemen’s National Council is unlike Libya’s – set up to lead the country in its transitional period and direct its foreign policy. It is different from the Syrian National Council founded in Istanbul, Turkey, by Syrians in exile. It is not the military councils of Egypt and Tunisia that have vowed to oversee transitions without replacing the government.
To start with, Yemen’s National Council was formed later that most others in the Arab world this year. The Yemeni National Council was founded on August 17, seven months after the beginning of the revolution in Yemen. When it was created, another entity, the Transitional Council, had already been formed by female activist and later Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakul Karman.
It all started after an assassination attempt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh on June 3. After the president fled to Saudi Arabia for treatment of his injuries, a conflict emerged among revolutionary entities in Yemen as to how best to lead the country during his absence.
The independent youth insisted on a transitional council to do this, but the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), the traditional political opposition who were part of the revolution, were against the idea because they feared that it would lead to an escalation in violence similar to that in Benghazi, Libya.
Karman however went ahead and founded the Transitional Council on July 17. Exactly a month later, the National Council followed.
“The National Council was formed by the JMP as a direct a result of Karman forming the Transitional Council, to block her way, so that they could be the main player in the country,” said Sultan Al-Rada’ai, the coordinator of the independent youth at Change Square. “The JMP said that Karman’s council was a stillborn, but we say that the JMP’s council was a hysterical pregnancy.”
He added that, when it was founded, the National Council was not the same as originally suggested. In the end, it contained more members to satisfy different groups, but the large number that was added was not taken seriously in making decisions.
“Mid-July, the JMP contacted us secretly and gave us the proposal,” said Al-Radai. “We had a meeting. We were six representatives from the main actors in the square: one from Islah, one from the Socialists, one from the Nasserites, one from the civil society movements, one from the Houthis, and me as the independent.” Al-Ridai notes that although Islah, the Socialists, and the Nasserites are technically already part of the JMP, they were however approached as independent parties and offered remaining seats to bolster the JMP’s presence in the council.
On August 17, when the National Council was formed, two main players in Yemeni politics, the Houthis and the Southern Movement, announced their withdrawal from both the JMP’s National Council and Karman’s Transitional Council in protest at unfair representation. The Houthis are supporters of a rebellion against the regime in the Sa’ada governorate in north Yemen, and the Southern Movement have been protesting for the independence of the south since 2007.
The Southern Movement, for example, had been allocated 35 representatives in the National Council but felt that the latter did not truly represent them, according to Al-Radai.
The National Council was made up of three parts: 1,500 people in a general assembly, 281 National Council members, with 35 decision makers on a an executive board headed by Mohamed Basundwa, now the prime minister of the National Unity Government.
When it was formed, many protesters complained that, like Saleh’s regime before it, the council had empowered tribal figures and reproduced the same power structures that had been around for years.
The independent youth who started the revolution were almost entirely absent from the council, as the youth’s share was taken up by politically-affiliated youth who were not independent although they were presented to the public as such.
When the GCC-brokered power transfer deal was later signed on November 23, the public learnt for the first time that the JMP had signed it as the National Council, rather than as a coalition of political parties.
This has made protesters believe that the only reason the council was formed in the first place was so that the deal could be signed by a body that sounded like it was backed up by the protesters, although they said that it was not.
When the deal was signed, some figures from the 281 members of the council announced their resignation in protest at not having been consulted about the deal.
“Members did not vote for this decision, everyone was surprised, the council had not gathered for almost two months!” said Al-Radai.
“The National Council was founded to kill the revolution,” said Amar Al-Assadi, a protester in Change Square. “Protesters across the country had rejected the deal for months, and then the JMP went ahead and signed it in the name of the council.”
Protesters had been opposed to a deal that would give Saleh and his follower’s immunity from prosecution, as well as bring the JMP and traditional ruling party to power with no real gains for the revolutionaries.
On her Facebook page, Amal Al-Basha, a leading human rights activist and a member of the National Council, called for the council to be dissolved after a National Unity Government was set up as part of the GCC deal.
She told the Yemen Times that the council should play no more than a monitoring role: “The council should simply act as a monitor,” Al-Basha told the Yemen Times, pointing out that the JMP and its partners in the end joined the regime and failed to bring about a peaceful end to the revolution.