ADEN, Feb 21 — Yemenis vote today for a successor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh in hopes of ending a year-long struggle that began with mass protests to oust him and almost led to the collapse of the state.
The vote, which Washington and Yemen’s richer neighbours led by Saudi Arabia support in order to avoid Yemen’s collapse into a failed state in which Islamist militants may thrive, has been rejected in swathes of the impoverished country it is meant to stitch back together.
On the eve of the vote, violence flared in the south, where separatists seek a divorce from the north with which they fought a civil war in 1994 after formal political union. Officials warned attacks to disrupt polling were all but certain.
Unidentified gunmen attacked a polling station yesterday in Aden, the latest in a string of attacks in the largest city in the south, formerly a socialist republic which was united with Saleh’s north in 1990.
Southerners, who accuse the north of usurping their resources and discriminating against them, have said they will boycott the election because it confers legitimacy on a political process to which they were not party.
That prospect threatens to strip any legitimacy from the power transfer plan crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with US backing, which enshrines Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, in an election with no other candidates.
The vote would make Saleh, now in the United States for further treatment of burns suffered in a June assassination attempt, the fourth Arab autocrat to leave office in a year after revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
It leaves unresolved a military standoff between Saleh’s relatives, a mutinous general and gunmen loyal to tribal notables. There is an armed revolt in the north of the country and Islamists accused of links to al Qaeda have made advances in the south.
The vote has been denounced in advance by youth activists who took to the streets to demand the end of Saleh’s 33-year rule, and regard the transfer plan as a pact among an elite they regard as partners to the crimes of Saleh’s tenure, including the killings of protesters in the uprising against him.
“The election is a political scenario mapped out in the GCC initiative but in its essence it is irrelevant to the true ideals of democracy,” Rana Jarhoum, 29, a development worker, said.
Broken as Somalia?
Washington, which long backed Saleh as a foe of the al Qaeda branch which plotted abortive attacks abroad from Yemen, now backs transition to ensure it has a partner in its war against al Qaeda, which includes assassinations using drone strikes.
Its envoy in Sanaa, Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, yesterday claimed Shi’ite Muslim Iran was fomenting unrest in the northern provinces where Saleh’s forces tried and failed to crush Shi’ite rebels. This echoed the accusations of Sunni-led monarchies neighbouring Yemen that Tehran seeks more regional influence via a Shi’ite fifth column.
He also called for reunifying a military in which Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali and nephew Yehia lead key units that have enjoyed US support. They are locked in a stand-off with tribal leader Sadeq al-Ahmar and dissident General Ali Mohsen, whose battles with Saleh’s loyalists have left parts of Sanaa in ruin.
Hadi alluded to these rifts in a message to the nation hours before the vote, warning they must be healed to steer Yemen away from becoming “as fragmented, splintered and destroyed as Somalia“.
“We cannot talk about a stable nation without returning life to its natural state and removing the phenomena which have appeared, beginning with the split in the army.”
The GCC deal gives Saleh and aides immunity from prosecution, and envisions a new constitution and a referendum paving the way for a multi-party election in two years.
Its interim government faces fiscal and humanitarian crisis, and has sought billions of dollars in international aid to avoid collapse in a country where unrest has all but paralysed modest oil exports that fund imports of staple foodstuffs.
The IMF estimated Yemen‘s forex reserves dipped to US$2.7 billion last year, and the United Nations Children’s Fund says 57 per cent of Yemen’s 12 million children are chronically malnourished — the highest level outside Afghanistan — and that half a million face death or disfigurement. — Reuters