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Yemen regime on the brink as army splits

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Chris Newcombe reports on the impending collapse of President Saleh's regime

Yemeni President Saleh's tottering regime has taken a further blow with the defection of five generals, including the commander of the 1st Brigade, major general Ali Mohsin Saleh Ahmar. Soldiers of the 1st Brigade joined protesters in the capital Sanaa, where tanks patrol the streets, as troops loyal to the dictator surrounded his presidential palace. Talk of an army coup is now rife.

Impatience with the meagre concessions grudgingly granted by Saleh - who has held office since 1978 - had already toughened the mood of protesters. But last Friday saw the worst regime violence yet. Soldiers on the ground and rooftop snipers fired on unarmed, peaceful protesters in front of Sanaa university, killing over 50 and wounding 200. That compares with 29 deaths reported since protests began in early February! Bullet wounds to the heads of victims indicate that snipers shot to kill.

Undoubtedly, the bravery and determination of the protests, along with the deepening crisis of presidential rule, has been the key factor in fomenting the split in the military. The Friday massacre was the last straw for general Ahmar, who held the president responsible for the bloodshed and stated that his defection was "an answer to the developments in the streets."

Increasingly desperate, Saleh is now raising the spectre of civil war, but it seems unlikely he has the basis of support to mount such a fightback. On his part, general Ahmar is seen as a regime man, corrupt with conservative Wahhabi sympathhies – not likely to be popular among radical youth. The troops of the 1st Brigade, on the other hand, are hailed by the protesting crowds.

The democracy movement, whilst strong and united in opposition to Saleh's rule, is – like the movements in other Arab states – extremely heterogeneous. It includes students, Islamists, socialists, and tribal leaders, some veteran oppositionists, and some completely new. Needless to say, they have diverse views of what kind of government and society should replace the present regime.

Well before this movement emerged, Yemen was facing acute problems on several fronts: a northern rebellion, secessionists in the south, and the activities of Al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia involved itself in the north, sending in troops against the Houti rebels, and the USA made air strikes on what it calls "terrorist" positions, killing hundreds, prompting some to call Yemen the USA's 'third war', after Iraq and Afghanistan. Yemen's strategic location between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa is perhaps the most important factor motivating the USA's involvement.

Apart from these conflicts, Yemen faces economic woes unlike those in most Arab states. Dwindling resources - oil is tipped to run low by 2017 – and an undeveloped economy combine with a growing, youthful population to produce 65% unemployment and seething frustration and unrest. Whatever regime replaces the rule of president Saleh will have to deal first and foremost with this economic challenge.