Middle East

Yemen looks to a future without Saleh

Yemeni women show their ink-stained thumbs as their hands read 'February 21, a new Yemen' to show their support for next week's presidential election
Image caption Yemen's election is less about democracy and more about a future without Ali Abdullah Saleh

By any measure, Yemen's presidential election can hardly be called a great exercise in democracy.

For a start there is only one candidate - the current Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

And, according to the election rules, there is no minimum turnout for the vote to be valid.

In other words, if only one person turns out on Tuesday to vote for him, Vice-President Hadi will still win. It all sounds like a bit of a farce.

So why does this election matter? And will it change anything in this deeply troubled corner of the Arabian Peninsula?

Deeply divided

This peculiar election is not really about selecting a new president; it is about getting rid of an old one. For 33 years Yemen has been ruled by one man - Ali Abdullah Saleh.

For the last year the country has been boiling with unrest as tens of thousands of Yemenis have taken to the streets to demand that Mr Saleh go.

Image caption Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi will inherit a country in deep crisis on many fronts

Finally, in November, and under heavy pressure from Saudi Arabia, Mr Saleh signed an agreement to step down, but only once a new president is elected.

On Tuesday, after more than three decades, the people of Yemen will finally be able to say with certainty that Mr Saleh is gone.

And, say the supporters of this election, Yemen can finally start down the road to rebuilding this deeply divided country. Or so the theory goes.

In the centre of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, thousands of protesters are still camped out in Change Square. Many have been there now for a year.

The whole places is starting to take on a semi-permanent feel - tents are being replaced by shacks built with concrete blocks with a growing forest of satellite dishes sprouting from their roofs.

Election boycott

Inside, bands of young men lounge on rugs chewing khat, the mildly narcotic leaf that the whole of Yemen's male population appears to be addicted to.

Most of the young men here say they are going to vote in Tuesday's election.

"We support this process," says one.

"We want Saleh to go, and we want an end to this civil conflict. Vice-President Hadi is a good man. He will bring people together."

But there are others here who are boycotting the election.

Image caption The protesters in Yemen's Change Square have been camped out for months

Adbudullah is a 25-year-old from a small provincial town some 60 miles (100km) east of Sanaa. Last year he returned from working in Saudi Arabia to join the protests to bring down the president.

"My brother and my cousin were both killed by snipers during the protests," he says.

"If I vote in this election I will be betraying their blood. I don't just want Saleh to go. I want him to pay for the blood he has spilled. I want him put on trial and executed."

People like Abdullah have clear personal reasons for boycotting. But there are whole chunks of the country that may not vote.

In the provinces that used to make up the Republic of South Yemen, tribal and political leaders have called a boycott. Polling stations have already been attacked by militants.

In the north, the Houthi tribe is also boycotting. The Houthis, who are Shia Muslims, have been in open rebellion against the government in Sanaa for years.

'Terrible legacy'

Ending the Houthi rebellion, and bringing peace to the south are only two of the huge challenges that Mr Hadi will face.

Another will be what to do about former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's family.

Many hold senior positions in the military and in business. His half-brother runs the air force, his son commands the Republican Guard and his nephew is in charge of the domestic security forces and the elite American-funded counter-terrorism unit.

Last week, thousands of air-force personnel walked off their base outside Sanaa and marched in to the city to demand that Mr Saleh's brother be dismissed from his job as head of the air force.

On Sunday, a large group of them were camped outside the vice-president's house.

"We will not leave here until Saleh's brother is fired," said Lt Col Abdullah al-Yemeni.

"He is not fit to run the air force, he is uneducated and corrupt, no-one has any faith in him. He is only there because his brother is president."

Vice-President Hadi does have some things on his side. Most important is that he is from the south.

The unification of north and south Yemen in 1990 was followed by a bitter civil war in 1994.

The north won and, ever since, the southerners have felt deeply embittered towards their new rulers in Sanaa. Vice-President Hadi's roots in the south may help with reconciliation.

But even if he succeeds in ending the rebellions and removing the Saleh clan from power, Presdient Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi will only be at the start of dealing with a terrible legacy of corruption, poverty and economic mismanagement that Ali Abdullah Saleh is leaving behind.

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