Like many doctors, Tariq Noman dreads the day he sees one of his own sons brought in on a stretcher. These days, that possibility looms large. Eight months ago, Noman left his comfortable post as chief cardiac surgeon at Sana'a's government-run hospital to establish a field hospital at Change Square, the locus of antigovernment protests in Yemen's capital. And while one of his older sons works alongside him, tending to the victims of violent government crackdowns, his youngest, 16-year-old Ahmed, is out on the front lines, leading a peaceful protest that is frequently met with bullets, baton brigades, mortars and even rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). "Every time I hear news of a clash, I hold my breath," Noman says while making the rounds of his ad hoc hospital, a converted mosque where gurneys and IV drips share space with illuminated Korans and rolled-up prayer rugs. He holds an X-ray up to the light filtering through a stained-glass window, pointing out the ghostly white image of a bullet buried in the flesh of a protester hit by sniper fire. "In the end, I know that my son is no different than this man," he says. "It's difficult, but we should be ready to sacrifice with the rest of the nation if we really want to see change."
Yemen, an impoverished nation on the southwestern edge of the Arabian peninsula, has been embroiled for eight months in a violent standoff that pits the 33-year regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family against thousands of peaceful protesters like the Nomans and the new Nobel Peace Prize laureate Tawakul Karman, who are calling for real democracy, an end to corruption and better opportunities. The young revolutionaries are backed by a coalition of opposition political parties, tribal clans and a military wing led by a onetime Saleh ally who defected with his troops in March. Noman, who has nothing to do with the clans or politics, says the fight is about the future of the country. "I want for my family a Yemen where merit and education lead the way. Saleh wants a kingdom."
At stake is a nation teetering on the edge of collapse, wracked by separatist rebellions and home to al-Qaeda's most active franchise, one that has demonstrated both the intention and the ability to attack the U.S. As revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have successfully toppled those countries' dictators, Saleh has stubbornly held on to power and used increasingly brutal tactics, even as he promises to make concessions to his opponents. Before the protests started, Saleh appeared to be grooming his son Ahmed to take over. He has since renounced that plan, but Ahmed remains the head of Yemen's special forces, the elite Revolutionary Guards. Saleh's nephews and a half brother dominate Yemen's security apparatus, holding top posts in counterterrorism, intelligence, the police and the air force. It's not antidemocratic, says Yahya Saleh, head of general security and President Saleh's nephew, but cultural. "In the Middle East, family relations and tribal relations are playing a part [in politics]," he says. "The President is putting his trust in the right place. This is why the system is standing."
With friends and relatives dominating state-run enterprises, including the government-owned media, such a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a small elite virtually guarantees that elections are a farce, say opposition members. It also means that even if Saleh were to step down in exchange for immunity, as suggested in a compromise agreement backed by the U.N., his family could still control the levers of power. Saleh, who recently returned to Yemen after four months in Saudi Arabia, where he received medical treatment for wounds sustained in an attempted assassination, has so far refused to implement the agreement, even though he has thrice promised he would. In a recent interview with TIME and the Washington Post, he suggested that he was still waiting for the opposition to concede to his conditions. Many in Yemen speculate that one of the holdups might be the opposition's insistence that members of Saleh's family be removed from their positions as well. The delay in reaching a deal takes Yemenis closer to the precipice of full-blown conflict every day. "We don't wish for civil war," says Yahya Saleh. "They are expanding in the streets. Should we withdraw till they take the capital? Or do we stop them?"
The level of violence is rising in Sana'a and beyond. Tribal militants and the defected army division backing the protestors have attacked pro-government forces around the capital. And Noman, a high-profile doctor who has been vocal with his distaste for the regime, has received numerous threats on his life. Ironically, he and his sons are safe in Change Square, where government forces don't dare enter. But his wife and daughters, who contribute to the movement by cooking some 800 meals a day for hungry protesters, stay at home. "I am worried that if Saleh's guys can't get me, they may go after my wife," says Noman.
Saleh has long sought to characterize his political opposition, which is linked to an Islamist party called Islah, as aligned with the al-Qaeda forces seeking to destabilize Yemen. Islah models itself on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and opponents of the Yemeni group often call it the Brotherhood. In his interview, Saleh said international pressure to accede to the compromise was tantamount to handing power "to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood." It's a familiar scare tactic for Middle Eastern dictators seeking support for their regimes, but most Yemenis, even liberals like Noman, vociferously deny that Islah is a front for al-Qaeda. "Al-Qaeda is good business for Saleh," Noman says. "The U.S. trains his military to fight al-Qaeda and they send him money and weapons. And then he supports al-Qaeda so that the U.S. keeps sending more money and weapons. It's blackmail."