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Yemen presidential vote set for Feb. 21; Saleh returns home

SANAA, Yemen — Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on Saturday set Feb. 21 as the date that Yemenis will go to the polls to select at new president to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh, who agreed last week to step down after 10 months of protests against his rule.

The new elections were part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-mediated deal that called for Saleh to transfer power to Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution, bringing to an end his 33-year rule.

The deal, however, was controversial among many Saleh opponents, who objected to the immunity provisions, and so was Hadi's decree about presidential elections. Activists in Sanaa's Change Square, the sprawling anti-government sit-in that has been the epicenter of months of anti-government protests, said that the announcement would have no effect on ongoing demonstrations.

"Any election will be meaningless unless the army and power are no longer in the hands of the Saleh's family and the old regime," said Hamza al Kamaly, a medical student turned anti-government activist. "Our revolution is only beginning."

Under the GCC deal, Saleh retains the title of president until his successor is elected. His family holds key positions in the Yemeni military.

In a reminder that Saleh is likely to remain influential, the president returned to Sanaa Saturday night from Saudi Arabia, where the deal was signed. His presence back in Yemen defied predictions that he would travel to the United States for additional medical treatment for wounds he suffered in an assassination attempt in June.

Hadi has yet to name a new prime minister who is to form a unity government that includes members of opposition parties; that appointment may come as soon as Sunday.

A quick return to stability is far from certain, however. The nation's military remains divided between troops under the command of Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen, who dropped support for Saleh in March, and loyal troops, many of whom serve in unites under the command of Saleh's powerful relatives. Many neighborhoods in the north of the capital are still under the control of dissident troops and anti-government tribesmen, and sporadic fighting between the two sides has continued.

The strain of military defections and months of unrest has left the government's hold of much of the country severely weakened. Much of the nation's far north remains outside of government control, and government forces have been engaged in a fierce battle with Islamic militants in the southern province of Abyan for months.

Yemen's last presidential elections were held in 2006, and most observers estimate that it will take considerable effort to prepare for the upcoming ones. As the nation continues teetering towards uncertainty, analysts say, holding elections in such a short period of time will present a considerable challenge to an already overextended government.

"It's hard to imagine free and fair elections being held in less than three months," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst. "Regardless of what the GCC deal says, an early February election date seems incredibly optimistic and overly ambitious."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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