SANAA, Yemen—The night that two anti-government demonstrators were shot dead by supporters of the Yemeni regime amid the protests and counterprotests roiling Yemen's dusty capital city, I visited the scene of the crime: a blocked-off T-shaped intersection in front of the metal gates of Sanaa University. The intersection has been ground zero over the past 13 days for the anti-government protesters who have risen up against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the strongman who has ruled Yemen for more than three decades. His effigy swings from a lamppost above the protesters' multicolored tents.
When I arrived at the university late on Feb. 22, I found an unusual cross section of Yemen's fragmented society. Young educated Yemenis were standing shoulder to shoulder with bearded religious leaders, T-shirt-clad teenagers, and tribesmen from Yemen's rural north. A 20-year-old hipster -- even Yemen has a few of them -- held hands in prayer with a white-cloaked tribesman, a foot-long dagger slung across his slender waist. The diversity within the protests is striking; it's also perhaps the single most important indicator of whether there will be a revolution in Yemen.
Yemen is not Egypt. Hosni Mubarak presided over a mostly stable country with working government institutions, a functioning if lagging economy, and a robust civil society with a coherent vision of what a democratic post-Mubarak Egypt might look like. Yemen has none of those things. For all the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of military aid Saleh's government has received from the United States, the Yemeni president exercises real control over only about half of his country, and three-quarters of its people. Large swaths of the restive south, which was a separate country until 21 years ago, are effectively no-go zones for his government, as are much of the eastern tribal lands and the mountainous north, where Houthi rebels have battled the government for the last six years.
Yemen's economy consists of little more than the country's oil exports, which are dwindling, and unemployment hovers around 35 percent. Terrorist organizations like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has masterminded several attempted attacks on American soil from its base in Yemen, operate here with near impunity. And average Yemenis' loyalties are divided not just among political factions but also among the intricate strata of tribal affiliations that have been the principal fabric of the country's society for centuries. A revolution in Yemen stands a better chance of producing an all-out civil war of the sort the country has endured regularly throughout its history than it does of creating anything resembling a stable democracy.
Saleh has stayed in office as long as he has largely because he has learned better than anyone else how to navigate this vastly complex political and social landscape: He has been adept at figuring out whom to court, whom to buy off, and whom to kill to hold onto power. He has no shortage of enemies, but for any one of them to consolidate a serious opposition would have been nearly impossible. When protests first materialized in early February, Saleh announced that he wouldn't seek reelection in 2013, but many in Sanaa don't believe him -- they say if the president manages to hang on to office that long, through the current bout of restiveness, he'll only be more confident in his ruling abilities than he is now.
But after Saleh's supporters fired Kalashnikovs on anti-government demonstrations in Sanaa on Feb. 19 and then again on Feb. 22, killing two and wounding dozens, the unthinkable is suddenly thinkable. The attacks in the capital -- while relatively tame compared with violence elsewhere, which has claimed at least 10 more lives -- seem to have struck a chord, potentially catalyzing cooperation between Yemen's wildly disparate anti-government factions. University students, illiterate tribesmen, Houthi rebels, southern separatists, socialists, and Islamists, who have little in common aside from a searing hatred for Saleh, now seem willing to collaborate, at least in the short term. That unlikely coalition may be the only thing that could end his 32-year reign. The million-dollar question, however, is what would follow.