Yemen: Election? What election?

There's a woefully misleading report about Yemen from AFP this morning. It begins:

"Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh will stay in the United States beyond the election next month that will choose his successor ..."

Let's get this straight once and for all. The so-called election, scheduled for February 21, will not "choose" Saleh's successor. The successor has already been chosen. He is Vice-President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi's name will be the only one on the ballot papers, because no other candidates have been allowed.

The "election" itself is illegal and invalid because the Yemeni constitution states very clearly that there must be more than one candidate. Even Saleh accepted that principle in two previous presidential elections (while of course ensuring that opposition candidates never stood a chance of winning).

Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the Americans and the Saudis, this is turning into one of the more shameful episodes of the Arab Spring. Both countries are manipulating events in Yemen for the sake of their own short-term interests, with flagrant disregard for the long-term aspirations of the Yemeni people.

Saleh, who has been granted immunity from prosecution by the Yemeni parliament, headed for the United States on Wednesday after spending a few days in Oman. He is said to be on a private medical visit.

By granting him a visa and allowing him into the country without threat of arrest the US is now – in effect – playing along with the Yemeni parliament's disgraceful immunity deal. Last month, the White House said he would only be allowed into the country for "legitimate medical treatment" but that charade has now been more or less abandoned. It appears that Saleh will be "seeing consultants" in New York in connection with the bomb injuries he received last June but will not be staying in hospital. It's not even clear that he will receive any actual treatment.

The real purpose of Saleh's American sojourn was explained by Gerald Feierstein, the unpopular US ambassador in Sana'a, whenhe said: "We think that him not being here [in Yemen] will help the transition, we think it will improve the atmosphere."

There are suggestions that Saleh will return to Yemen after the non-election, for the swearing-in of President Hadi. Presumably the idea is that Saleh's attendance will give a public signal that Saleh accepts the transfer of presidential power from himself to Hadi. However, it is difficult to see how that will enhance Hadi's legitimacy. In the eyes of many Yemenis it will simply be a sign that the old system is changing its face while remaining largely intact.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 January 2012