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Revolution in Yemen: 'We are not finished yet'
Updated 5/3/2012 12:45 AM ET
SANAA, Yemen — Salman Abdul Salam has lived on University Square in Sanaa for more than a year in protest. He hasn't had a job since graduating from college two years ago. His clothes are worn, and he says he's too poor to marry his girlfriend.

But the departure of longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh has him feeling determined.

"We are not finished yet," said Salam, 25. "This revolution will continue until Saleh is tried and Yemen is passed over to civilian hands."

Saleh stepped down in February after months of protests by millions of Yemenis who rose up against 33 years of dictatorial rule that saw the country's economy deteriorate and al-Qaeda's presence expand.

Saleh's family and cronies remain in key government ministries and military posts and continue to run the country for their own benefit, critics say. Towns in the south are a battlefield between al-Qaeda fighters and the army.

"It's a major crisis in Yemen," said Mohammed Abulahoum, the president of the opposition Justice and Building Party. "The country is facing numerous challenges, including terrorism and poverty. It will take time for this government to stand on its feet."

That may be difficult given that Saleh remains in Yemen and continues to influence its direction, Yemen analysts say. Saleh threatened to withdraw members of his party, the General People's Congress Party (GPC), which he still leads, from the governing coalition. This would have toppled the recently installed government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in which Saleh loyalists head half of the ministries.

"Saleh has not absented himself from the political process, and that is a potential spoiler for the reform process," said Leonie Northedge, who specializes in Yemen at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

Hadi was the only candidate on the presidential ballot in February after Saleh resigned under pressure from the United States and sheiks in neighboring nations. A former army commander and ally of Saleh, he has made attempts to rid the government of Saleh backers. He fired key figures in the regime and some military leaders.

The country continues to be divided between insurrections in the north and south and infiltration by al-Qaeda insurgents. Hundreds have died in clashes in the south in the past month.

Though it has relatively low oil reserves, Yemen sits alongside a choke point of oil shipping where the Red Sea enters the Gulf of Aden. The West is concerned that the route could be shut off if terrorists continue to make gains in Yemen.

"It's not like the president controls the country and he is allowing (al-Qaeda) to do this," said Paul Salem, director and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. "The state does not control parts of the country, and al-Qaeda has taken that part of the Arabian Peninsula as a foothold."

The problem that is most widespread in Yemen is its poor economy, which contracted by 17% in the past year, according to the Ministry of Labor. Unemployment is as high as 40% in some regions, 70% for young people. Almost half of Yemen's 25 million people are unable to find enough to eat daily, according to the World Food Program.

"My three sons lost their jobs last year and are forced to take loans from people," said Amira al-Subaihi, 68. "We now live in a small one-room apartment. We are lucky if we sleep without feeling hungry."

Many Yemenis seethe over the deal that gave Saleh immunity and allows him to influence their lives. Anti-Saleh protesters were kidnapped, beaten and tortured during the Arab Spring uprising that led to Saleh's ouster and left 2,000 people dead, according to the Yemeni Ministry of Human Rights. Those who took part in the uprising say they feel betrayed and are ready to rise up again.

"We protested against oppression and the killing of innocent people," said Sabreen al-Malahi, 27, an activist in Baitha province. "Saleh was behind the killing of (thousands) of activists last year and will not be forgiven."

Some Yemen analysts say the nation may take advantage of the chance brokered by the international community to move forward. The United States has urged Hadi to seek a cease-fire with warring factions and address the grievances of the Yemeni people while continuing the fight against al-Qaeda.

"In many senses, (the revolution) has been successful," Northedge said. "Even if the election wasn't perhaps ideal or the election people wanted to see, it has nevertheless given a political opening and space for reforms to be able to set in motion, and we have seen some of that taking place."

Salam and other protesters say they'll remain in their tent cities until Saleh, his family and his cronies are gone. "Yemenis will prevail because people are insistent," Salam said. "We are willing to continue protesting daily for years to come until a real democracy is built."

Contributing: Louise Osborne in Berlin

Posted 5/2/2012 7:00 PM ET
Updated 5/3/2012 12:45 AM ET
A week before the Yemeni presidential vote in February, women in Sanaa hold up ink-stained thumbs to show their support for the election. In many countries, voters' thumbs are inked when they cast their ballots.
By Mohammed Huwais, AFP/Getty Images
A week before the Yemeni presidential vote in February, women in Sanaa hold up ink-stained thumbs to show their support for the election. In many countries, voters' thumbs are inked when they cast their ballots.