February 21, 2012
Yemenis have voted to install their US-backed vice president as the new head of state, tasked with steering the country out of a crisis created by an anti-government uprising that has raged for a year.
The vote can hardly be called an election as vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is the only candidate. It is, however, a turning point for the impoverished Arab state, ending president Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year authoritarian rule.
Many Yemenis hope the breakthrough will bring stability to their country, even if it does not bring a radically different government.
In an indication of Yemen's lawlessness, at least five people were reported killed in attacks on polling stations in the country's volatile south. Yemeni officials say that a visiting former British parliamentarian, Baroness Emma Harriet Nicholson, was in one of the stations when it was attacked, but was not hurt.
Saleh is the fourth ruler to lose power in the Arab Spring uprisings. But to the chagrin of many protesters, he will likely remain in Yemen, where nothing bars him from political activity.
As part of a US-backed deal brokered by Yemen's Gulf neighbours, Saleh is stepping down in exchange for a blanket immunity from prosecution. But the outgoing president, who over the years has built a strong web of tribal and family relations, could still hold considerable sway after Hadi is installed.
Saleh is now in the US for medical treatment after an attack on his palace in June left him badly burned, and hastened his descent from power. He is expected to return to Yemen after the vote. Still, he addressed Yemenis through a message read out on state TV late Monday, urging them to vote and praising what he said was a new breed of politicians who were born out of the crisis. He also held out the possibility of an ongoing public role for himself, possibly through his longtime ruling party.
"I bid farewell to authority," Saleh said. "I will remain with you as a citizen loyal to his country, people and nation ... and will continue to serve the country and its just issues," he added.
His successor Hadi cast his vote at a polling station near his house in Sanaa. The station was changed at the last minute because of reports of a bomb threat. Security around Hadi was tight.
"This is a qualitative leap for modern Yemen," Hadi said after voting. "There will be big political, economic and social change, which is the way out of the crisis that has ravaged the country."
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, with a weak central government, a secessionist movement in the south, a rebellious Shi'ite community along the northern border with Saudi Arabia and one of the world's most active al-Qaeda branches.
The US had tried to cultivate Saleh as a partner in fighting al-Qaeda, providing him with funds, drones, boats and training for Yemeni special forces while keeping a limited presence of US military experts in the country for coordination and training. It has also thrown its support behind Hadi in hopes he will help fight al-Qaeda.
Yemenis first took to the streets to call for Saleh's ouster in January, 2011, inspired by the uprisings that toppled presidents in Tunisia and Egypt.
Since then, protesters have rallied in huge numbers despite crackdowns by Saleh's security forces that have killed more than 200 protesters. Hundreds more have died in armed clashes between armed groups and security forces.
Saleh will not be the only figure from the past to try to retain his power throughout this process. General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh ally who defected to the protesters early last year, said on Monday that he expects to continue to "serve." This is likely to upset both Saleh's supporters and younger protesters who want to see all the former regime holdovers out of the picture.
"In the current position or another position, I will continue to serve the nation," al-Ahmar told Al-Jazeera TV. "Whatever role the state chooses for me I will serve."