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Yemen's coming explosion will make today's problems seem tame.

In 2010, Yemen will celebrate the 20th anniversary of national unification. But it won't be much of a party: This could well be the year Yemen comes apart.

Even the brutal 1994 civil war failed to threaten the structural integrity of this country chronically teetering on the verge of disintegration as much as the current crises, all of which may be coming to a head in 2010.

Yemen has so many dire problems that it's easy to be overwhelmed. Al Qaeda is growing in prominence, a Shiite rebellion is expanding in the north, and the threat of secession is renewed in the south. There's a brewing fight over what comes after President Ali Abdullah Saleh, age 67, who has ruled Yemen for 31 years; the country's elites are locked in a closed-door struggle to take power once he departs. Finally, and perhaps most intractably, Yemen is an environmental and resource catastrophe in the making. The country's water table is nearly depleted from years of agricultural malpractice, and its oil reserves are rapidly dwindling. This comes just when unemployment is soaring and an explosive birthrate promises only more young, jobless citizens in the coming years.

The overburdened and crisis-ridden government has never felt much urgency in dealing with this last category of concerns. But Yemen's first two troubles, security and governance, are a combustible mix -- and together they might explode in 2010 if al Qaeda consolidates its gains by taking advantage of a government in disarray. The organization, already the most regionally and economically representative of any group in the country, has only grown stronger over the past three years. Once disorganized and on the run, today al Qaeda members are putting down roots by marrying into local tribes and establishing a durable infrastructure that can survive the loss of key commanders. They have also launched a two-track policy of persuasion and intimidation, first by constructing a narrative of jihad that is broadly popular in Yemen, and second by assassinating or executing security officials who prove too aggressive in their pursuit of al Qaeda fighters. So, while U.S. President Barack Obama is busy trying to stamp out terrorist safe havens in Jalalabad and Waziristan, new ones are popping up in Marib, Shabwa, and al-Jawf.

For much of his career, Saleh has been a master manipulator, surviving three decades in power in a country where his two immediate predecessors were assassinated within a year of each other. He's lasted so long by relying on a coterie of relatives and trusted allies. But now, the style and structure of his rule are beginning to fracture. Yemen's economic straits mean that he has less money to maintain his patronage network or play different factions against one another. Within his own Sanhan tribe, the once-strong bonds of loyalty are starting to show signs of strain as relatives and other powerful figures scramble for position in hopes of eventually seizing the presidency themselves.

Whoever does take power in the capital of Sanaa may find there's not much of Yemen left to rule. The country continues to dissolve into semiautonomous regions amid various rebellions, all of which feed off one another. The military's inability to put down the insurrection in the north is emboldening calls for independence in the south, while other groups, who sense Saleh's growing weakness, are beginning to press their own demands.

The United States has not helped matters. Washington's continued insistence on seeing the country only through the prism of counterterrorism has induced exactly the results it is hoping to avoid. By focusing on al Qaeda to the exclusion of nearly every other threat and by linking most of its aid to this single issue, the United States has only ensured that al Qaeda will always exist.

Instead of imploding, Yemen is going to explode. And when it does, Yemen's problems of today are going to become Saudi Arabia's problems of tomorrow. This is already foreshadowed by Saudi involvement in the northern conflict and al Qaeda strikes from Yemen into the kingdom. By the time Obama and his team cobble together a smarter response, the time for prevention will have passed and their only option will be mopping up the mess.

-/AFP/Getty Images


After Pharaoh

Hosni Mubarak's death -- or worse, his failure to give up power -- could throw the largest country in the Arab world into chaos.

Of all the crises that threaten to shake Barack Obama's presidency, few are more volatile than the ticking time bomb in Egypt, especially terrifying for the very reason that no one knows when it might explode. Hosni Mubarak, the 81-year-old former Air Force marshal who has ruled Egypt as a police state since 1981, might leave office sooner than anyone is expecting, opening a power vacuum that could send this U.S. ally, its 83 million citizens, and the regional political order spiraling into a fragile and potentially paralyzing tailspin.

Or he might not. Mubarak might well linger on for a few more years. Either way, the time bomb will be looming over Egypt for the foreseeable future, and Obama's fortunes in the Middle East will be determined in large part by whether this bomb explodes or gets detonated gently. It's not likely that Mubarak will go down voluntarily. In 2004, he told the Egyptian parliament that he will serve as president "until the last breath in my lungs and the last beat of my heart." Despite incessant rumors of his ill health, he doesn't seem close to those eventualities.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood -- the only opposition group worth mentioning -- is waiting in the wings. And the Egyptian regime is so wary of what could happen if Mubarak were suddenly removed from power that, according to one Western intelligence official, it has a detailed plan for shutting down Cairo to avoid a coup, fine-tuned to the detail of playing mournful Quranic verses on state television. Mubarak has never tapped a successor, so interim officials will take over the government to provide short-term continuity and prepare for emergency elections. If they happen, such elections are sure to bring more turmoil.

Due to carefully manufactured quirks in the Egyptian Constitution, the most likely candidate to win is the president's son, Gamal Mubarak, turning Egypt into a hereditary republic -- a "republarchy," as Egyptian-American political scientist and exiled dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim warned in 2000. Gamal might be acceptable to Egypt's business class, but he is not popular. If he assumes the presidency, it could easily trigger a coup, be it an old-fashioned military takeover or a nonviolent "velvet" one that parachutes a senior military officer to the top of the ruling party. The irony of Egypt's predicament is that it is often the self-described democrats of the opposition who advocate such an intervention by the armed forces, thinking that military rule could provide a steppingstone to democracy. Gamal, on the other hand, promises another Mubarak presidency for life.

Throughout this troubled transition, Egyptian initiatives in the region, such as Cairo's attempts to reconcile the Palestinian factions of Fatah and Hamas and its involvement in the Sudanese peace process, would be frozen. Key allies such as the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as neighbors like Israel, will worry that the situation could take a turn against their interests and might be tempted to interfere. But they'll be working in the dark: The U.S. State Department is ill-prepared for Hosni Mubarak's departure, former officials from George W. Bush's administration say. When the moment does come, U.S. diplomats will be scrambling to understand the fate of their largest Arab ally, one whose ready cooperation has been central to U.S. designs in the region for nearly three decades.

Bad as this all may seem, the alternative could be even uglier: that Mubarak will hang on to power, run for a sixth term in 2011, and go on ruling the country into advanced age. The example of Habib Bourguiba, who remained president of Tunisia for 30 years until he was removed through a "medical coup" at age 84, comes to mind. That may yet be the worst outcome for Egypt: a prolongation of the current uncertainty, with a president increasingly frail and unable to govern -- leading a regime whose moral authority erodes and where centers of powers multiply, with no end in sight.