“In the end, it was Yemeni wisdom that prevailed,” Jamal Benomar, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Yemen, told an IPI audience at an Arab Intellectual Series event on June 21, 2012. Mr. Benomar was speaking about efforts to bring about a settlement between the government and the opposition in Yemen last year after protests started.
“When I went to Yemen for the first time, the discourse was very belligerent on both sides; it was an atmosphere characterized by dangerous violence, [and] could have led Yemen to civil war. At the end of the day, Yemenis showed leadership and ended up with an agreement,” he said.
Mr. Benomar, as SRSG, was involved in the negotiations that led to then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh transferring power to his vice president and an agreement to have a new unity government and elections take place in 2014. He also compared what happened in Yemen to other parts of the Arab world, including applying lessons from there to Syria today while respecting the singular characteristics of each situation.
“’Yemenis will need to take responsibilities and find a way out of the crisis.’ We said this repeatedly from the outset,” he said. “We said this can only be settled through face-to-face negotiation between Yemenis… It needs to have an element of inclusion. There are many actors, and a way needs to be found to bring them into the political process.”
“It was a transformative agreement in the sense that it talks about creating new institutions built for Yemen.” This includes elections in February 2014, while the parties agree to “new rules of the game” and create a “new social contract,” he said.
That agreement was built on Yemen’s unique history. “Yemen has a history of politics, political parties, there’s a sophisticated civil society, some democratic space,” he said. “Yemen also has a history of power-sharing agreements.”
“In the case of Yemen, both sides decided it was a UN envoy who would facilitate negotiations,” he continued. “It was not an agreement that emanated from outside. It was a result negotiated face-to-face between the sides, and our role was only a facilitation role.”
Ultimately, “the balance of power did not favor any one side to win an outright military victory…both sides realized the best way is to enter a face-to-face dialogue,” he said. “All of them showed leadership and political will, and that’s what led them to conclude these political negotiations.”
“Despite everything that one can say about Ali Abdullah Saleh…the bottom line is that all of them—and I am a witness to this—opposition figures and former president all cooperated and showed leadership in negotiations in November.”
Comparing Yemen to Syria, he said, “In this case of Yemen, the Security Council played a very important role, positive role. It is the resolution [UNSC 2014] that created the momentum, the Security Council speaking as one, combined with the voices of the actors in the region, the GCC, others in the international community, this is what created the momentum to talk about, to face negotiations finally taking place at the request of both sides.”
“Unless the local actors engage, unless the local actors develop the political will to solve their problems peacefully, the situation in Syria will continue to degenerate in an all out war with many casualties,” he said. “At some point during the crisis [in Yemen], both sides realized there can be no winner. This is not what we have in Syria.” As long as this situation persists, Mr. Benomar said that there will not be negotiations in Syria.
Further, he point out that “the total number of peaceful protestors who were killed in the context of the 11 months uprising [in Yemen] was about 270. While in Syria, what we hear is a large number, and there is no comparison between the two numbers.”
“There are lessons to be learned from the Yemeni experience, but these are two different situations,” he said. “We need to keep these elements in mind.”
The event was moderated by IPI Senior Fellow, Ambassador Abdullah Alsaidi who served as Yemen’s Permanent Representative to the UN until 2011, when he resigned after force was used against protestors in Yemen by the government.