WASHINGTON // With the military divided, the opposition planning to march on the presidential palace on Friday and parliament approving a state of emergency, Yemen is growing ever more unstable.
The imposition yesterday of emergency laws for the first time since a civil war in 1994 indicates that Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president for more than 32 years, has no intention of going quickly or easily. The emergency legislation bans public demonstrations and gatherings, imposes restrictions on the media and suspends the country's constitution.
Mr Saleh also warned that any "coup" against his rule would spark a "bloody civil war". Yemen's parliament backed Mr Saleh's request for emergency powers, but with more than half the assembly absent from the vote, it has only questionable legitimacy.
At the same, Mr Saleh had recently offered not to stand for re-election in 2013, when his term ends, and Monday, in talks with military and tribal leaders, he offered to resign earlier, though not before overseeing new parliamentary elections toward the end of this year.
But though an early resignation was a demand of the opposition weeks ago, the dynamics changed on Friday when government snipers killed 50 protesters. The killings triggered a rash of resignations, including those of diplomats, government officials and members of the General People's Congress, the ruling party. Significantly, senior army officers have broken ranks, vowing to defend the protesters. The opposition is now demanding Mr Saleh's immediate resignation.
In many ways, the dynamics are similar to events in Egypt, where the former president, Hosni Mubarak, first vowed not to stand again, then to resign early. But in the face of an army that announced it would stay neutral but protect protesters he finally tendered his resignation.
But unlike in Egypt, the army in Yemen does not appear to be united. Skirmishes broke out earlier in the week between the presidential guards, which are under the command of one of Mr Saleh's sons, and regular army units loyal to Maj Gen Ali-Mohsen al-Ahmar, the most prominent senior army defector.
With arms abundant in a country where the opposition is a loose coalition of pro-democracy demonstrators, left-wing parties and Islamists, northern Shiites and southern secessionists, as well as tribal and religious leaders united only around their demand to see Mr Saleh step down, army skirmishes could easily spiral out of control.
"The situation is very volatile," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "What we see going on right now is probably the most significant challenge to President Saleh's 32-and-a-half year rule.
Much depends on the position of international players, most importantly Saudi Arabia and the US. The kingdom has had a historically difficult relationship with Mr Saleh, who supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But in recent years, Mr Saleh has been seen as an important factor in keeping Yemen stable, and Saudi Arabia sent jets to combat Shiite rebels in the border region in the north of the country in support of the government in 2009.
Riyadh, along with Washington, will above all want to ensure that Yemen, with which it shares a 1,800km-long border, along which it is constructing a barrier to keep out illegal immigrants, stays stable.
The location of Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula on a strategic waterway linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, is of international concern. With Somalia on one side, no one has an interest in seeing both sides of the Bab al Mandeb flanked by failed states.
Both countries are also concerned about al Qa'eda and its local variant, al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, which Washington says is playing an ever more influential role in Yemen. There have been reports in recent days of al Qa'eda-linked militants setting fire to nightclubs in the southern city of Aden, while an attack that killed six soldiers earlier this month was also blamed on the group.
The question now, Mr Boucek said, for both Saudi Arabia and the US, is what best guarantees Yemeni stability. The security-focused policies of recent years to strengthen the regime militarily, he argued, have ignored the underlying structural problems of the country and have only made the US and others seem complicit in maintaining a status quo that has failed to improve conditions in the poorest country in the region.
Mr Boucek suggested that a better approach would be to focus on measures that address the widespread poverty, unemployment and misrule that afflicts the country and give Yemenis more of a stake in their country,.
That, he conceded, is a long-term process. In the meantime, a carefully managed and internationally supported negotiated transition of power would be probably the best outcome, Mr Boucek said, something he suggested Yemen's own elites are aware of.
"I think that we're going to see the elites reach some kind of [negotiated] conclusion. President Saleh and the regime have said he is going to step down, but there needs to be a process to do that. It needs to be orderly, and they need to figure out what that process, or what that mechanism, is going to be. If he leaves suddenly there is nothing or no one to fill the void, and then things will be bad."