After the presidential elections on 21 February 2012, in which 65 percent voted in favour of the sole candidate, Yemen’s new President Abd Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi faced several challenges. The elections, part of a peace deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), centred around a transition of power from the Saleh administration to a transitional regime, which will lead the way to new presidential elections and a referendum on a new Constitution in two years time.
The elections were met with considerable unrest. In the capital Sanaa, young people continued to camp out on Change Square in protest of the ‘fake’ elections. They opposed Hadi’s candidacy, as this was viewed as part of an ‘illegitimate’ political process initiated under pressure of the GCC. Striving for more radical reform, the protestors maintained that the elections will not lead to a decisive and meaningful break with the past – as in Tunisia and Egypt. The elections were also boycotted by groups that have been marginalized by the Saleh regime, such as the rebellious (Shiite) Houthis in the north and supporters of an independence movement in the south. Outside the capital, ballot boxes were set on fire and polling stations were attacked.
President Hadi (1945), a former general from South Yemen, was Vice-President under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh since 1994. As Vice-President Hadi hardly possessed any real powers. In the latter years of his long reign Saleh had nominated close relatives to key positions, leading to repression and corruption. Hadi had relatively clean hands. For that reason, he was an acceptable candidate for the main opposition parties involved in the GCC-brokered transition agreement – the so-called Joint Meeting Parties.
It is still too early to say whether the election of President al-Hadi will herald a new beginning for Yemen. Saleh continues to exercise power behind the scenes through relatives and loyalists: his son Ahmed is still the commander of the elite Republican Guard, one of his nephews is still in charge of the elite counter-terrorism unit and another nephew heads the main security force. Complicating factor: all are central to the US strategy to counter the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.
On the other hand, in April 2012, President al-Hadi sacked two military chiefs close to Saleh: Air Force chief General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, a half-brother, and the Commander of the Presidential Guard, General Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, a nephew.
The immunity of Saleh and around 500 others who served in his government – part of the GCC-brokered peace deal – has enraged many Yemenis and ignores the demands of the opposition movements. According to Human Rights Watch, the Yemeni security forces have been responsible for excessive and disproportionate violence against peaceful demonstrators since the uprising broke out.