For Some in Yemen, Dashed Hopes

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 21, 2006

SANAA, Yemen, Sept. 20 -- Former presidential candidate Sumayya Ali Rajja, her two children in tow, plodded from polling station to polling station Wednesday trying to take part in what she considered a historic moment: Yemen's first competitive presidential elections. But Rajja's frustration mounted when she was turned away from the third station and again told her name was not on the list of registered voters.

Despite apologies by election officials for what they said was a mistake, Rajja insisted that her name was intentionally removed from the list. The 51-year-old consultant, who dropped out of the presidential race last month, wrote an editorial this week criticizing President Ali Abdullah Saleh and announcing she would vote for his main opponent.

"This is proof that the government intends to do whatever it takes to win this election, that there's no real democracy here," she said as she walked out of the Tareq bin Ziyad middle school. "We're nothing but a corrupt dictatorship run by a mafia."

Whatever the reason behind Rajja's missing registration, her frustration and disappointment were real, echoed by many who had held high hopes for Yemen's democratic experiment, which had been closely watched as a barometer of pluralism in the Arab world. The country's announcement in 1990 that it would unify north and south and embrace democracy had inspired hope across the region.

Today, Rajja joins a growing chorus who believe President Saleh, in power for more than 28 years, has moved the country away from democratic ideals toward an authoritarian system based on patronage.

"Every election, instead of representing a step forward, was actually a step back," said Abdul-Wahhab al-Anisi, an official with Islah, an Islamic opposition group. "People have been losing faith in democracy because they see their lives deteriorating and oppression increasing during democracy."

Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political consultant, said that eight modifications made to the constitution since 1990 had all served to increase the president's powers and make him less accountable. Saleh "is an authoritarian ruler who has subverted and sabotaged laws and established a system of patronage not conducive to democracy," said Iryani, driving around Sanaa. At a traffic light, three young boys rushed to his car begging for money to buy food. "People are actually going hungry," he said. "There's been an increase in poverty. Forty percent of the people are now living under the poverty line."

The main problem plaguing one of the Arab world's poorest countries is endemic corruption, critics say. "The government came to be seen as a place through which you could become wealthy and provide for yourself, your friends and your family," said Robert Burrowes, a political science professor at the University of Washington and author of several books on Yemen. "The people in the system don't want democracy if it limits their ability to use the state as a source of personal wealth."

Sanaa was quiet Wednesday, a national holiday to allow people to vote, as shops were shuttered and long lines formed at some of the polling stations. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms and red berets carried Kalashnikov assault rifles and frisked men entering the schools.

At the Shuhadaa al-Sabeen middle school, opposition supporters traded stories about how people affiliated with Saleh's ruling party canvassed neighborhoods, warning people that a vote for opposition candidate Faisal bin Shamlan would cause the country to slide toward Somalia-like anarchy. Those who agreed to vote for Saleh were offered cash, they said.

Early results show Saleh leading by more than 80 percent of the vote. But the opposition coalition has accused the ruling party of intimidating and arresting opponents and of forging voter lists.

"They came around to my father-in-law's house last night and offered money to the registered voters. My wife refused because she believes in reform, like I do, but my brothers-in-law took about 2000 riyals each," or about $10, said Muhammad Abdullah, an accountant at the Finance Ministry.

Despite the growing poverty, many people fear an alternative to Saleh, the only leader they've known for nearly three decades. At the Tareq bin Ziyad middle school, Amal Mohsen, a homemaker, wiped purple ink from her finger after voting. Behind her trailed her three young daughters, in threadbare clothes and bare hennaed feet, only the eldest wearing tattered sandals.

"We don't want change," she said, only her eyes visible behind a black veil and long black robe. "We want stability."

But without an overhaul of the government, the country will only get poorer and more backward, said Iryani, who believes that Saleh's administration has neither the will nor the ability to get Yemen back on the road to democracy.

Others still have faith in the system, believing it can be salvaged from within. Jalal Yaqoub, 38, a Planning Ministry official in charge of reform, left a well-paid job in the private sector for a monthly salary of about $250 because he's convinced Saleh is serious about reform. He said that earlier this year, just months after he suggested the judicial system be reformed, Saleh divested himself of the position of head of the judiciary.

"He's not corrupt," Yaqoub said. "He has the will to change. But it's not going to happen overnight. We're a 16-year-old democracy, teenagers, still going through the hardships of puberty. I'm optimistic."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company