AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Yemen is poised to become the fourth Arab nation to see its dictator fall from power in the past year. That's after months of mass protests and violence. Tomorrow, the 33-year rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh will come to an end, as millions of Yemenis turn out to ratify a plan handing power to his vice president.
NPR's Kelly McEvers reported from inside Yemen when Saleh's crackdown on protesters was pushing the country towards civil war. She's returned to the capital of Sanaa, and sent this report.
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KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The last time I was in Yemen I was riding around in a taxi that's back window was all shot out. Blackened buildings pocked with hundreds of bullet holes marked a neighborhood where pro-Saleh forces were battling an anti-Saleh tribe. Shots rang out through most nights. Another tribe that opposed Saleh was threatening to overtake the airport.
This time, the capital of Yemen could not look more different. There are no bullets flying, no threat of airport closures, few checkpoints. And instead of a blown out taxi, I'm riding around in a Jeep Cherokee.
For the better part of a year, the young, educated activists who are driving me around lived in tents, calling for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hundreds of protesters eventually lost their lives. They were assembled here, in a place called Change Square, a sea of tents made out of tarp and scraps of wood, where posters of the fallen hang everywhere and a homemade stage was the place for angry speeches.
As the uprising turned to an open conflict between Saleh's forces and the myriad groups who oppose him, Yemen's already failing economy tanked. Electricity and water ran short. The region feared Yemen would finally become the failed state so many had predicted.
Now, there's singing and traditional knife dancing as we cruise through Change Square and a new face appears among the posters. This time, it's the face of Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, Yemen's vice president. Hadi's smiling face urges Yemenis to cast their votes tomorrow. The posters call him a new president for a new Yemen.
The plan to transfer power to Hadi was actually signed in November. It calls for him to run a transitional government until full elections can be held in two years. Between now and then, massive reforms are to take place at all levels of government and the opposition has been granted some key positions.
Out of the car and into the main field hospital in Change Square, Dr. Tariq Nouman treats a man whose leg was destroyed by an explosion during an attack on protesters months back.
DR. TARIQ NOUMAN: His bone has been destructed. His joint is already gone.
MCEVERS: Nouman has run the hospital through the most violent days of protests and crackdowns.
NOUMAN: We have just two choices. We'd have to go to war and fight Saleh and, actually, there will be thousands and 10,000 casualties or to accept this. At the end, we saw to accept this and we go gradually to accept what will happen.
MCEVERS: He says the plan to replace Saleh with his vice president was the only real option for Yemen. What they're accepting is that Saleh is stepping down and Hadi is taking over, but Saleh's sons, nephews and most staunch loyalists will remain in power. Nouman says that means Change Square isn't going anywhere until the regime is truly reformed.
NOUMAN: You know, Saleh force is still there. Yes, he left, but his force is still here in Yemen, and his son is still in Yemen and his people are still here taking power. They have power and they have forces.
MCEVERS: Saleh's close relatives not only run powerful branches of the military, but also state-run companies. What's more, Saleh himself says he will come back to Yemen this week to help with the peaceful transition of power. Most Yemenis say they'll believe it when they see it.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sanaa.
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