Yemen to seal Saleh's exit in one-candidate vote
Sanaa, February 20, 2012
After a year of protests, diplomatic wrangling and an assassination attempt, Yemenis will draw a line under Ali Abdullah Saleh's three-decade rule on Tuesday by voting in an uncontested election to install his deputy as president.
In the capital Sanaa, new posters of the sole candidate, Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, have been plastered over the peeling scraps of Saleh's moustachioed image - a visible sign of a fourth Arab autocrat's demise in the wake of revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Hadi, 66, became acting president when Saleh stepped aside in November under a deal hammered out by Yemen's Gulf neighbours, fearful of a slide into lawlessness on their doorstep, and backed by the US.
But civil war remains a very real risk in a country facing an emboldened offshoot of Al Qaeda, an economic crisis that has brought it to the brink of famine, a rebellion in the north and a southern secessionist movement that attacked a vehicle carrying ballot boxes on Sunday.
"If the new government fails to fulfil its obligations to reach out and re-integrate the southerners, the Houthis (northerners) and the youth ... then conflict will be inevitable," political analyst Abdulghani al-Iryani said.
The power transfer, brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been touted by regional and Western powers as a triumph of diplomacy.
Visiting Yemen, US Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan praised Hadi's efforts against Al Qaeda and said on Sunday that Washington hoped the country would be a model of peaceful political transition in the Middle East.
Yet most Yemenis see Hadi as a caretaker rather than a seasoned leader. If he is unable to keep warring interests within the military from getting out of hand, many fear Yemen will be torn apart by those hoping to exploit a power vacuum.
"The GCC deal does nothing more than maintain the status quo," Karim Rafari, a prominent political activist, said. "It (the election) is just a political manoeuvre that ensures that the needs of those at the top are seen to."
Apart from Al Qaeda's interest in using Yemen as a staging ground for attacks, Saudi Arabia suspects Shi'ite power Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in the north. The Shi'ite group has regained some of the momentum it lost when Saudi Arabia sent troops to the porous 1,460 km (910 mile) border in 2009 to suppress the rebellion.
Holding the country together will be a feat, let alone drafting a constitution and holding a referendum to pave the way for a multi-party election in two years' time, as laid out in the Gulf initiative.
Saleh, who is in New York for medical treatment for injuries suffered in a bomb attack against him in June, has vowed to return and lead his General People's Congress (GPC) party, casting doubt on his commitment to give up power for real.
Even if he lets go after ruling since 1978, members of his inner circle retain key positions of influence, not least his son Ahmed Ali, who commands the Republican Guards, and Yehia, his nephew, who leads the Central Security Forces. They are locked in a standoff with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar and dissident General Ali Mohsen.
Although Saleh was deeply unpopular, as evidenced by the entrenched street protests against him, there is little doubt it was his iron fist that held Yemen together, a task he once likened to "dancing on the heads of snakes".
"Ali Abdullah Saleh unified our country, something that no Yemeni leader has ever done before," said 38-year-old mechanic Abdulkarim Al-Mugni. "Even if he leaves, I am sure his influence will pervade Yemen for years to come."
A southerner from Abyan province, Hadi supported Saleh during Yemen's north-south civil war in 1994. Like many in the senior ranks of the ruling party, Hadi rose to prominence through the military: he was sent to Britain in 1966 to study military tactics when Aden was still a crown colony, and was later appointed minister of defence.
An official from the opposition Islamist Islah party described him as "smart and well-connected but politically weak".
"Unless these elections lead to change and reform they will be meaningless," one Arab diplomat said. "We are confident that Yemen will enter a new phase but it faces big challenges." - Reuters