After 33 years as president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquished power to his former deputy Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Monday. "All of Yemen's proud citizens are behind him," Saleh boasted but as he prepares for life in exile in Ethiopia, Yemen’s proud citizens know all too well his departure is not a panacea for the embattled country. KHADIJA PATEL speaks to a group of Yemenis about their views of the political change sweeping through the country.
Much of the ever-narrowing focus of the battle for ascendancy between Arab people and autocracy is now centred on Syria. Exaggerated political manoeuvres have failed to intimidate Bashar Al-Assad into submission. A referendum on constitutional changes held on Sunday returned an overwhelming 89.4% approval from more than 8-million voters. Western diplomats have called the exercise a “sham”. Yet, the Syrian referendum as some detractors argue is similar to an “election” held in Yemen last Tuesday.
Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the 65-year-old former deputy to Ali Abdullah Saleh, was selected as a consensus candidate by the former ruling party and the opposition in a one-candidate election on Tuesday. A one-candidate election is certainly no embrace of democratic ideals but the election was part of a United States-backed deal to end a crippling political crisis and remove Saleh from office.
Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country is mired in challenge. Long beset by dire economic challenges, a southern secessionist movement, restive Houthi rebels in the north, powerful tribal rivalries, and the terrorist franchise al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an ever-growing influx of refugees from the Horn of Africa, Yemen’s fragility was further complicated by a year of “Arab Spring” styled protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Dr Abdulkader Alguneid from the town of Taiz – the third largest city in Yemen dubbed the heart of Yemen’s revolution for birthing the protest movement – is at pains to point out the lengths to which the peaceful protest movement went before it evolved into a complex cataclysm of gun battles and bombs. He says, “Yemen’s revolutionaries and people did everything in the book of (the Arab) Spring and even more. Yemenis, had sit-ins, demonstrations, intra- and inter-cities marches and miles long Friday prayers with names. Women, who are, usually, conservative stormed out, unexpectedly, into the streets... They got killed, on purpose, by the despot, to quell their spirit and their effect on the revolutionaries and the whole world.
“Protesters were tear-gassed with unusual canisters and water cannoned with sewage. Snipers shot protesters to kill. Freedom and change squares were burned and bulldozed. Residential areas were shelled with tanks, anti air craft and bigger guns.”
He points out that in a country battling to house and feed refugees arriving daily from East Africa, the revolution created another refugee crisis. “Internally displaced people, was a phenomenon, in the cities, towns and districts.”
Saleh enjoyed the support and patronage of the United States as a valued partner in rooting out al-Qaeda from Yemen. The security then of foreign interests was integral to the influence of what seemed increasingly to be a civil war waged in the streets of Yemen. As an armed opposition movement battled with state security forces in the capital Sanaa, Saleh appealed to Saudi Arabia and the United States to mediate.
“The despot,” as Alguneid refers to Saleh, “kept pressing the Saudis and the Americans to mediate and they, gladly, accepted. When the intermediaries, contacted the opposition, they couldn't say no for several reasons. One cannot just simply turn down an affluent neighbour who is entangled in Yemen fabric or say no to a superpower that controls the country's intelligence, security and special forces. Besides Yemenis have a history of asking foreigners to meddle in their affairs.” Notably, Yemen also has a long-standing tradition of watering down conflicts through such mediation. “Most local disputes are sorted out through arbitration and compromise,” Alguneid says.
Saudi Arabia and the United States then, stood to influence the fate of Ali Abdullah Saleh as well as the future of Yemen. If the US has been an ambivalent cheerleader of the Arab Spring, then Saudi Arabia has been its decided opponent. “Saudis, have a built-in distaste to revolution and change,” Alguneid says. “And the Americans, have a single track mind, that cannot see beyond al-Qaeda. The Yemeni revolution had to put up with this odd couple.”
Ultimately, a stubborn Saleh, a militant opposition, undeterred protesters and the subversive influence of foreign powers culminated in a solution to the crisis. “All these combined led to the so-called GCC initiative and the UN mechanism,” Alguneid says. Saleh, assured of immunity from prosecution by any future Yemeni government, left the country to allow the consensus candidate, his deputy, to stand for election.
After Saleh left, purportedly to seek medical care in New York, Gerald Feierstein, the American ambassador in Sana'a, explained: "We think that him not being here [in Yemen] will help the transition, we think it will improve the atmosphere."
As Saleh’s threats to return to Yemen before the elections were eventually rebuffed, Yemenis were divided about the election that would see them rid of Saleh forever. Even as millions streamed to the polls, activists launched a campaign against the election, labelling it a sham – relegating the exercise to one of the murkier aspects of the Arab Spring.
Atiaf Alwazir, a prominent Yemeni blogger and activist says, “National protests against the ‘election’ took place on Monday 20 February, one day before the elections. Songs calling to boycott the elections and posters against the ‘appointment’ were distributed. Those who advocated a boycott of the ‘election’ consisted of three main categories of people: independent youth members who outright oppose any political process including negotiations with the ruling party.”
Opposition to the election was founded in an implicit mistrust in negotiations with the ruling elite but ultimately the opposition was itself divided as the election day arrived last Tuesday.
“While the majority of people recognised the obvious flaws in the uncontested election, many, especially in the capital Sana’a, decided to vote,” Alwazir says. “Some citizens were misled to believe if Hadi does not get enough votes, Saleh will literally return to rule- he will become the Preisdent again.” She adds, “Based on the GCC implementing mechanism, this is impossible as Saleh has already signed that Hadi is the next president.”
One activist who warmly welcomed the election, Hind Aleryani, a social media analyst, saw the election as a turning point in the history of Yemen. She believes the election diffused political tensions. “The situation was tense previously because of Saleh’s refusal to leave. He insisted he was a legitimate president and that his departure was contrary to the constitution. There was also the tension between opposing parties ,” she says.
For Aleryani, though, the election was not as much a vote in favour of Hadi as it was a triumphant rejection of Saleh. “The elections were not for voting Hadi but it was to remove the constitutional legitimacy of Saleh,” she says. “The other choice was to go through a war, the winner of this war will be either Saleh or the tribal leaders who joined this revolution to benefit themselves, like Hameed Al Ahmar and Muhsen Alahmar.” As the lesser of the two evils then, the election won the favour of Aleryani and indeed millions more.
“Maybe many wanted this to happen in a different way but in my opinion this is the best way with a situation such as Yemen which full of conflict.” She believes Hadi’s two-year term at the helm of the country will help restore some semblance of stability. “It’s good that we have a consensus president for two years so things will settle down and then we will have a real election,” she says.
Aleryani believes Yemenis are now more optimistic about their future. “Lots of Yemenis are optimistic and feeling relieved that finally things are changing.” She is though well aware of the many challenges that lie ahead. “The following period will be difficult and there will be a lot of responsibilities on the new government but I am optimistic, because the greatest achievement of this revolution is the revolution that happens to the way of thinking in Yemenis mind,” she says, before adding, “I mean the way of thinking changed a lot during this revolution – for the better of course.”
Like Alerani, Abdullah Al-Maisari, a youth activist and coordinator of the Wake Up Call events in Yemen that was co-incidentally launched on the same day as the election, also believes Yemenis are hungry for change. “The huge turnout for the one man election in Yemen showed that Yemenis are really tired with what is going on in the country,” he says. “It shows how willing they are to give Hadi a chance in the hope things will change for the better.”
Crucially, Al-Maisari also reflects on the threat of the southern secessionist movements to the success of the election. “Southerners have participated in the election but not as much as the northerners,” he says, but adds that a groundswell of southern enthusiasm was not expected. “The concept of ‘One United Country’ is rejected by large portion of people in South. Although the anti-election supporters in south have used violence and caused panic among the voters, people still went to vote and that is a sign there are people in South who are still believing in the ‘One Nation’ concept.”
For Al-Maisari, the greatest challenge facing Hadi as president is the country’s fractured armed forces. “The new president will face many difficulties in regards of restructuring the armed forces,” he says. “Unless the new elected president start making real reforms, revolution will start a new curve and this time it will be really out of anybody’s control.”
“Yemen is going through a complex experiment of power transfer and starting the country of institutions,” Al-Maisari says. “I hope it succeeds,” he adds forcibly. “Certainly the change won't be easy or quick, but the new leadership of Yemen has to be vividly connected with the public and revolution demands. The public has to appreciate the tremendous challenges ahead too. People presented a great level of discretion so far. This path is not the ideal one; however it is the path with less risks and hopefully the one with great end.”
From Taiz, Dr Alguneid is careful to stress the threat the remnants of Saleh’s influence poses to the future of the country. “Saleh has gone, but we, still have his son, nephews and relatives. They cannot live normal life without being the president relatives and the accompanying bounty. They will dissolve, in no time.
He concludes, “I look at The Yemen Revolution as an evolutionary process. Eventually, Yemenis would get what they want most: a civil society, a civil state.” Aleryani echoes him, “This way of transition is better than having a Yemen which will be far away from the civil state that we are looking for.” DM
- Yemen Swears In New President to the Sound of Applause, and Violence in The New York Times.
- Profile: Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in The Christian Science Monitor.
Photo: Yemen's newly elected president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi looks on before taking oath at the parliament in Sanaa February 25, 2012. Hadi took the constitutional oath to become Yemen's new president on Saturday, formally removing Ali Abdullah Saleh from power after a year of protests that paralysed the impoverished Arabian Peninsular country. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah.