In Yemen, uncontested presidential vote on Feb. 21 masks tension over Saleh successor
SANAA, Yemen — For 33 years, a small photograph of President Ali Abdullah Saleh ran every day on the top left corner of the front page of al-Thawra, the government newspaper. On Feb. 1, a new editor aligned with Yemen’s populist revolt removed the photo. The next day, armed tribesmen stormed the gates. Terrified journalists fled the building, leaving Saleh’s loyalists in control of the paper.
On Feb. 3, the president’s image was back on the front page, in color, along with an apology.
“They must respect Ali Abdullah Saleh,” declared Hana Aldaini, 28, one of several hundred Saleh loyalists camped outside the gate in tents, some clutching Kalashnikov rifles. “He’s not just our president. He’s our father and brother.”
The takeover of al-Thawra underscores the obstacles facing the Middle East’s poorest nation as it prepares for a transition that will formally end Saleh’s 33 years in power. By month’s end, the autocrat is expected to officially transfer authority to his Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, his handpicked successor who is running uncontested in a presidential vote scheduled for Feb. 21. If everything goes according to plan, Saleh would become the fourth Arab leader ousted by the uprisings of last year.
But a year after Yemen’s revolt began, and days from the historical vote, deep divisions are still playing out visibly, in the streets, in politics, in the military and security forces, and in government institutions such as al-Thawra.
Saleh, who is in the United States receiving medical treatment, and his loyalists appear determined to play an influential role in a new Yemen, where the Obama administration is concerned about an ambitious al-Qaeda affiliate that has targeted America and controls large swaths of the south. That raises questions about how much the new coalition government can actually change in a country gripped by political and tribal rivalries, internal conflicts, and a host of economic and humanitarian woes.
“It says to me that we still have a lot of challenges in front of us,” said a senior Western diplomat, referring to what is unfolding at al-Thawra. “There are still elements on both sides that haven’t reconciled themselves to the transition and still are not fully committed to the transition.” The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
‘Saleh is like Putin’
In conversations last week, several top opposition leaders exuded a giddy confidence that Saleh’s hold on Yemen is about to end. “You are moving from one era to another,” said Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a former ruling party official who defected and started his own party. “The scenes in Syria and Libya are not encouraging. In Yemen, we managed to reach a settlement where everyone wins in the end.”
Others, though, say Saleh has won too much. A power transfer deal, forged by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States and Europe, has allowed Saleh to exit on his terms. He and his family have received immunity from prosecution for their alleged role in the killings of scores of protesters. His son, nephews and other relatives remain in control of much of the military and security forces. His loyalists hold key ministries in the unity government.
They vow that Saleh will return before the elections and will continue to play an influential role as leader of the ruling party, of which Hadi will be his deputy. “All of us believe the president will remain in the political picture,” said Abdu al-Janadi, the deputy information minister. “It will be in the vice president’s benefit if the president remains in the picture.”
Yemen’s main political opposition is composed of six political parties who are part of the unity government. On questions about how to move Yemen into a new era, the opposition has had significant differences with the country’s independent youth activists, who spearheaded the revolution.
The opposition and the ruling party view Hadi as the best compromise figure to run Yemen during a transitional period of at least two years. The two sides agreed that Hadi’s would be the only name on the Feb. 21 ballot, a move many of Yemen’s street activists have denounced.
So far, though, Hadi has shown few signs that he is willing challenge Saleh and his family. In interviews, top government officials and Western diplomats conceded that the vote, portrayed as an “election,” is an attempt to give Hadi popular legitimacy and boost his authority.
“I am surprised at the international community,” said Fouad Shujaa Aldeen, 34, an activist. “How can they support such a thing? How can they call it an election?”
Opposition leaders and Western diplomats say the vote is a vital step for a peaceful transition. Even if Saleh does return to Yemen, they argue that his power will be diminished. He could no longer use state resources to buy support; his loyalists would eventually abandon him.
“Ali Abdullah Saleh has no future,” said Mohammed al-Saadi, the deputy leader of Islah, the country’s most powerful opposition group. “He’s going to become more of a noisy voice but with little ability to take action. He has died politically.”
Others predict that Saleh, widely viewed as a master at political maneuvering, could control power from behind the scenes. They compare his situation to that of former Russian president Vladimir Putin, who stepped down from his position but remained the country’s most powerful figure. Putin is running again for the presidency.
“Ali Abdullah Saleh is like Putin,” said Khaled al-Anesi, an activist leader. “He has the wealth, the media, his allies are in power. His regime is still there.”
A taste of freedom
Mohammed Shubaitha, a senior journalist at al-Thawra, said the sense of freedom he had felt until the Feb. 2 takeover was unlike any moment in his career. For the first time, he was able to write about internal protests and violence.
He and other journalists have staged protests, demanding that the interim government evict Saleh’s loyalists from the newspaper.
In an interview, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, a senior opposition leader, said the new editor had been mistaken in removing Saleh’s photo. But he conceded that the government was unable to retake control of the newspaper.
“Even if we issue orders, they won’t listen to us,” Basindwa said. “They receive their instructions from those against the transfer of power.”