Positive in spirit, hundreds of voters flowed into Sanaa’s old town section Tuesday to cast ballots to replace Yemen’s longtime ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.
At Altabari school, one of the oldest in the capital, voters streamed in. Young and old. Male and female.
They left with ink on their fingers and thumbs, proof of their participation in a historic election that signifies the formal end of Saleh’s 33-year reign.
While the election is short on candidates — only Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi, who took over when Saleh stepped down in November after months of protests, is on the ballot — it appeared to be long on hope.
European observers said early turnout was healthier than expected.
Security around Sanaa and elsewhere was tight Tuesday. Around the capital, posters of Hadi has replaced images of Saleh.
“A New President for a New Yemen,” read a large banner that hung from Change Square, which had been the epicenter of the anti-government movement last year.
Some who took part in the protests said they were not particularly excited about Tuesday’s vote.
“Maybe you can call them elections,” said Nadia Abdullah. “But for me, elections should have more than one candidate.”
Abdullah said she would stand by Hadi as long as he made good on his promises.
“If he goes through with it, we will stand hand-in-hand with him,” she said. “If he doesn’t, or if we see a lot of game-playing between him and the government, I believe the youth will remain in the squares. They would say, ‘Leave,’ as they did to Ali Abdullah Saleh.”
The 65-year-old Hadi is a British-, Egyptian- and Soviet-trained army officer, recently promoted to the rank of field marshal. He has served as vice president since 1994 and is running for a two-year term as president on pledges of improving security and creating more jobs.
But he’s never had much of a power base of his own, and Yemen’s problems will take much longer to fix than the two-year mandate he’s expected to receive. It’s the poorest country in the Middle East, with a severe shortage of water and rising levels of malnutrition among its population of about 25 million.
Even before last year’s upheaval, Saleh faced a separatist movement in the south, sectarian tensions in its north and the growing presence of what Western officials describe as al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
For some, particularly in the once-independent south, Hadi is too closely tied to Saleh’s rule to represent any change.
“Why do people expect southerners to celebrate that Saleh is gone?” said Mohammed Mosed Okla, a prominent separatist leader in the port city of Aden. “His regime is still in control, and his family still control all the major security factions in the country. We will not be tricked again, and southerners will not celebrate until complete change takes place in south Yemen.”
Hussein al-Aqil, a professor at Aden University and another separatist leader, said Hadi watched as Saleh “oppressed us for more than two decades.”
“I was imprisoned for three years because I expressed my opinion and rejected the corruption that Ali Saleh stood behind,” al-Aqil said. “The old regime tortured me and made me suffer for years. Hadi is part of the old regime, and will not be recognized as a southern leader.”
Ahead of the vote, officials set up at least 10 new checkpoints in Aden. But only hours before polls opened, explosions rocked four separate neighborhoods late Monday. Security officials said no one was hurt.
Saleh handed over power to Hadi as part of a deal brokered by Persian Gulf states and will formally relinquish his office after Tuesday’s vote. He is now now seeking medical treatment in the United States for wounds suffered in a June assassination attempt at his presidential palace during weeks of street battles between government troops and tribal fighters.
The United States, meanwhile, has been backing Yemeni efforts against al Qaeda and has periodically struck targets inside Yemen, as in the September drone strike that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
Gerald Feierstein, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said the transition laid out in the Gulf plan as well as efforts to boost the economy and deliver basic services will be critical “in terms of our ability to defeat al Qaeda and other violent extremist organizations in the country.
“All of these elements are going to help us defeat al Qaeda and eliminate them as a threat here in Yemen, to the region and to the world,” Feierstein said.