Showdown in Yemen

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Ammar Awad / Reuters

Protesters hold a Yemeni national flag and an Egyptian flag during a massive antigovernment rally in Sana'a, Yemen, on March 1, 2011

What began as a simmer in the Arab world's poorest and most capricious state has suddenly started to come to a boil. In Yemen's mountain capital of Sana'a, the threat of civil war hangs like a bad taste in the dusty air. Motley marches of pro- and antigovernment protesters block the streets, and tens of thousands of armed tribesmen wait in murky rooms around the country for orders from their chiefs. U.N. employees were ordered to stay home on Tuesday, March 1, and many restaurants and shops were closed in the capital. The British embassy sent a text message to Britons in Yemen advising them to "stay indoors where possible, stock up on food and water and stay in touch with the embassy." The mood in the capital is tense.

Yemen's opposition, a loose coalition of parties from Nasserites to socialists to Islamic clerics, now has the ability to rally large numbers. And late Monday night, it quashed a last-ditch attempt by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to form a unity government. Gangs on motorcycles streamed through the streets, draped in red, white and black Yemeni flags, demanding that the President leave. There were fears that pro- and antigovernment protesters could face off around the capital; a solitary military helicopter flew low over the capital as the regime very publicly flexed its muscles.

How did it suddenly get so bad?

Only a few short months ago, Saleh was sitting snugly on a substantial pile of U.S. military aid as a result of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most active arm of the organization, having carried out near daily attacks in the country and threatened deadly missions on American turf. Afraid that U.S. troops on the ground could create a second Afghanistan, the Pentagon started pumping money into the Yemeni army in the hope it would crush the al-Qaeda threat. Saudi Arabia followed suit, afraid that instability in its southern neighbor could seep across the border to target Saudi oil production. Saleh, already fighting rebels in the north and a separatist movement in the south, knew he could rely on Yemen's volatility to garner the dollars he needed to pay off tribal foes and keep himself in power.

Then in mid-January, Tunisians staged a revolution and put their President to flight. Inspired, a small number of student protesters and human-rights activists hit the streets in Yemen, in solidarity with their North African brothers and sisters. Protest numbers slowly rose around the country but were tiny compared with those in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak — a friend of Saleh's — stepped down on Feb. 11. The Arab-dictator domino effect gave a boost to the students, and the numbers of demonstrators grew from hundreds to thousands — but even then, opposition political parties, the well-armed and powerful tribal chieftains and the masses of the unemployed remained on the sidelines.

The government started to fret. It had offered concessions in January — Saleh promised to step down in 2013 and denied that he would hand power over to his son. But he had made and broken the same promises in the past. Nobody believed him.

Then the Saleh regime committed its biggest blunder: regime loyalists and riot police started shooting protesters, at an average of three a day since Feb. 16, according to Amnesty International. On Friday, Feb. 25, in cities from the sultry Red Sea coast to the breezy fertile highlands, more than 100,000 demonstrators marched peacefully to protest the violence. "The people want to bring down the regime," the hordes chanted after praying in unison for the dead. A prominent tribal leader, Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, resigned from the President's ruling party on Saturday in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 tribesmen in the northern city of Amran. The President tried to rally tribal loyalists to pledge their allegiance, and many did, but al-Ahmar's announcement raised concerns that the tribes were divided. Indeed, tribesmen started to join the student protesters.

With the situation looking more and more desperate, Saleh offered on Monday to form a unity government with the opposition. The pitch included the formation of a coalition, an end to all demonstrations, the release of prisoners held without trial and the start of corruption investigations. "We call for a unity government for monitoring the parliamentary elections, and then the presidential elections. He who avoids dialogue secretly conceals evil against the nation," the 64-year-old leader told members of Yemen's clerics association, which included Abdul Majid al-Zindani, the most influential member of the Islamist party Islah, which leads the political opposition. Said Saleh: "I'm ready to leave power but not through chaos. I'm fed up now after 32 years, but the question is how to [leave] peacefully."

Saleh's plan backfired. After publicly rebuffing the proposal, opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Qubati said, "Saleh has only two options: either to be a former President or a deposed President."

In a statement released in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the government said it was "disappointed" with the rejection and "strongly believes that dialogue is the cornerstone of any political reconciliation agreement." A presidential directive established an investigative committee to look into recent violence in Aden, the southern port city where 17 protesters have died.

But patience is growing thin. After weeks of ambivalence about the students' tactics, the political opposition officially joined the protests on Tuesday. Peace is on a knife's edge in the capital.

"Saleh does not have a lot of options left," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. "The problem is that he believes he can still act and negotiate from a position of strength, when in fact, the ground has shifted substantially under his feet." Human-rights lawyer Khaled al-Anesi has become one of the main leaders of the protests in the capital. He tells TIME that the opposition's rejection of Saleh's proposal creates a fundamental shift in attempts to oust the President. "It is out of our hands," he says, referring to the original protesters, who have now been joined by thousands of oppositionists and tribesmen. "Now [Saleh] doesn't have any other choices. He only has one choice — to leave power."

After three decades of ruling Yemen, it will be hard for the President to do that. He has fought civil wars in the past and managed to keep the country together, an impressive feat in a fickle and fragile nation. Rumors circulated in Sana'a on Tuesday that the government has asked the staff of all Ministries to go out and protest for the President to stay, as a means of bolstering Saleh's image. While they may have been ordered to do so, many progovernment protesters seemed genuinely concerned about a potential spiral into violence if Saleh were to be deposed.

"Yemen is not like Libya or Egypt. We are poor people," says a government loyalist who asked to be named simply as "Muhammed." "There may be some corruption in the government, but it's petty cash. We need the President to stay to prevent civil war." This is the view of many Yemenis, who, despite having a healthy mistrust of the President, feel he is the only man who can keep the country together.

Political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani says Saleh can avoid civil war only by offering inducements to the protesters. The political opposition, he says, cannot be seen to act against the wishes of the streets, so it can't accept any offer. "[Saleh's] best option is to provide the streets, not the opposition, with concessions and start implementing them immediately," he tells TIME. "That will allow the opposition to join him without losing face. If the opposition have dialogue now, they will lose the streets."

It might be too late. Power brokers around the country are starting to cast around for their places in a post-Saleh world. Islah's aging leader al-Zindani, popular in Yemen but labeled a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department, has already jumped on the bandwagon of leaders hoping to ditch the President. "No matter how long it takes, no matter how many lives, the regime will fall," the cleric shouted through crackling speakerphones to a crowd of about 10,000 antigovernment protesters on Tuesday, his beard bright orange with henna dye.

During his speech, four MiG fighter jets flew over Sana'a. "The President is inclined to use violence now," says al-Iryani. "Since last night, he has been beating the drums of war."