"Where do I
stamp?" said the old man, flashing a wry smile as he dipped his thumb into a
pot of ink and peered down at the piece of paper in front of him. With a
picture of Yemen's balding vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, next to a
map of Yemen in the colors of the rainbow, the card looked more like a ticket
for a Ferris wheel ride than a ballot paper. Pausing for a second, the man
pressed his thumb into the circle next to the face of the vice president -- the only
candidate on the ballot paper. "I'm voting to save Yemen," he told me, before
folding the ballot in half and stuffing it into the voting box.
It was a
year ago this month that young men and women, spurred on by the dramatic
downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, first flooded the streets of Sanaa
with noisy demonstrations against the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the wily, 65-year-old leader was pushed out of his 33-year
presidency through the ballot box. Millions of Yemenis turned out to vote in a
one-candidate election, ushering in Yemen's vice president as leader and making
Saleh -- who is in New York undergoing treatment for burns suffered in a
bomb attack against him in June -- the fourth Arab leader to be ousted by the
mass uprisings of last year.
outside world, the idea of settling a million-person uprising with a one-man
vote might seem farcical, but most of the Yemenis I spoke to in the capital, Sanaa,
on Tuesday were treating the election with the utmost seriousness.
drawing a line in the sand," said Sara Al-Maqtari, a 26-year-old student who
stood under a hot sun outside a hospital in a line of veiled women waiting
patiently to cast their votes. "It's hard for you to understand just how much
of a relief that is for us. One man and his family ruling, plundering your
country for a third of a century -- try to imagine it."
consider this the first democratic election in the Republic of Yemen,"
said Samir Radhman, a surgeon, overhearing our conversation and cutting in. "People
are coming to vote without pressure, without bribes. I'm not voting Hadi in;
I'm voting Saleh out," he said, holding up his purple thumb to the sky as if to
prove his conviction.
Karman, the joint recipient of last year's Nobel Peace Prize, was among the
mass of voters, insisting that however imperfect the exercise was, it still
represented Yemen's final refutation of Saleh's rule.
felt like I was closing a heavy door on Saleh's regime," she told me with a
sigh over the phone shortly after casting her vote with one of her sisters.
"This ends Ali Abdullah Saleh era. Now we will build a new Yemen."
year of skyrocketing food and gas prices, mass layoffs, daily power cuts, and
shelling matches that left parts of the capital in rubble, an almost-infectious
sense of relief and excitement swirled around Sanaa on Tuesday. The prospect of
a break with the politics of the past coupled with the slow return of
electricity -- for months families have been eating their supper by candlelight
-- kindled a newfound sense of optimism not seen here in a long time. Yellow
microbuses decked out with speakers whizzed around the capital blaring out pop
songs and the national anthem as fierce political discussions broke out between
Saleh's supporters and opponents as they stood side by side waiting to vote in
lines that wrapped around schools and universities.
everyone shared this newfound sense of optimism. Many of the youth groups that
spearheaded the pro-democracy street movement remained adamant the election
was a farce. For them, Hadi's inauguration offers only the perpetuation of the
Saleh regime rather than the convincing break with the past they believe they
saw in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
is what brought the previous government to its knees, and it is the street, not
a fake election, that this government will have to answer to," said Leila, a
mother of three and part-time English teacher who refused to vote.
Yemen's ministries are now split between Saleh's ruling party and Yemen's
mainstream opposition -- dominated by the Islah Islamic party -- many believe that
the same old faces are still ruling the roost, that the "transition to
democracy" is more akin to "a game of musical chairs," as one protester put it,
than the complete overhaul of governance they are seeking.
old machinery is still running the works," said Sami, a student
from among a group from a "Che Guevara" tent in the capital's sprawling shantytown-like protest
camp, known as Change Square. He and his friends had assembled a mock election
booth where protesters could sign fake ballots decrying the election and dip
their thumbs in red ink in memory of the hundreds slain by government troops
Outside the capital, opposition to the election took on a wholly more sinister form. In
the southern port city of Aden, ballot boxes were dragged out into the streets
and set alight by mobs of anti-election protesters bearing machine guns and wearing
balaclavas. Gunfire crackled and explosions ripped through buildings throughout
the morning as militants launched sporadic attacks on polling stations, forcing
many of them to close early.
bombs and bullets," said a breathless British baroness as her car sped
away from a polling station that she and two female Yemeni ministers had been
observing before it came under gunfire.
separatists, who want to restore a socialist state that Saleh merged with the
north in 1990, had called on their supporters to boycott the vote. Years
of maltreatment and neglect at the hands of the Sanaa government have left many
in Yemen's south questioning the value of the 1990 merger between the then
Marxist-led south and the tribal-dominated north. Many believe the separatists
are now seizing the opportunity of a weakened central government to try to push through their claim to independence.
jubilant scenes of the capital were not to be found in Yemen's northern province
of Saada, where the Houthis, an insurgent group that Saleh tried to crush
before a cease-fire in 2010, have carved out their own state-within-a state thanks to
crumbling government authority. Like the southern separatists, the Houthis also
shunned the election, deriding it as an "American-imposed plan."
elections are part of a deal imposed on Yemen by America who from day one aimed
to hamper the impact of Yemen's revolt, fearful it would unsettle their allies
in the ruling elite. The elections are a response to American pressure," said
Dayfallah al-Shami, a member of the Houthis' leadership council.
Abaadi, a university professor manning a polling center in Saada city, told me
in a shaky voice over the phone that the few who did turn out to vote had asked
not to have their thumbs inked for fear they would face retribution from the
[the Houthis] blocked roads to the polling centers; they toured the city in
trucks with speakers saying that voting is against the revolution and
participating amounts to the killing of martyrs."
States is fearful that Saada, a wild, rugged, and impoverished province nestled
in Yemen's north, bordering Saudi Arabia, could become the arena for a proxy
war between Yemen's neighboring oil giant and Iran, both accused of meddling in
the country. "We do see Iran trying to increase its presence here,
in ways that we believe are unhelpful to Yemen's stability and security,"
the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, said in an interview with Reuters on Monday.
"We do think that we have evidence of Iranian activities that will build up
military capabilities as well. It's a relatively recent phenomenon. Iran is
taking advantage of this period of political instability and loss of government
control over large parts of the country."
bizarre twist of events, Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, who heads the elite Republican Guard, also appeared in public on Tuesday to vote his father out of
office. He is one of a number of relatives who still hold positions of power,
heightening suspicions that Saleh -- who will return to Yemen as head of the
ruling party -- and his entourage plot to retain an unwarranted influence over
Yemen. The fate of his relatives, or "the family problem," as some Yemenis call
it, remains shrouded in uncertainty, a thorny topic, not least due to the relatives' centrality in U.S. "counterterrorism" strategy. Although a military
committee is meant to oversee a complete restructuring of the armed forces
during the transitional period, most here doubt the Saleh boys
will be going anywhere anytime soon.
already swirling that Ahmed, whom many believed the president had been grooming
for the spot before being ousted by pro-democracy enthusiasts, may
still have his eye on the presidency. There is nothing in the GCC agreement
that bars him from running for president in 2014.
written statement read out by a weeping female anchor on state television Monday, Saleh hinted that he would continue to remain in the political
farewell to the authority, but I remain with you a citizen loyal to his
homeland, his people, and his nation as you have known me through thick and
thin," he said. "I will continue to perform my duty and my role in
serving the country and its just causes."
Tom Finn is a freelance
journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.
GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images