War Or Compromise: What's Next For Yemen?

After months of massive anti-government protests and increasing bouts of violence involving a dizzying array of combatants, Yemen seems on the brink of total collapse and all-out war. But some in the Arabian country are still holding out hope for a negotiated solution, including the departure of longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

In Yemen, the opposition also accuses its president of killing protesters, but he's out of reach. He's being treated in Saudi Arabia for injuries suffered when the presidential palace was shelled during massive anti-government protests.

The question now is what lies ahead for this poor country that borders Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Yemen and sends this report.

KELLY MCEVERS: Ask any Yemeni what's in store for this country, and he'll tell you there are two options right now: compromise or war. Let's start with the first one. A compromise is what opposition groups, politicians, diplomats, neighboring countries and even the U.N. have been working on for months. The idea is that after prolonged demonstrations and the deaths of hundreds of protesters, it's time for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, says opposition figure Mohammed Abu Lahoum.

MOHAMMED ABU LAHOUM: He will hand in power to the vice president. We would have a transitional period of probably about a year, where a new constitution would be drafted. And then we will have new elections and a new president and a new parliament, and we'll take it from there.

MCEVERS: Trouble is, that option has been tried, three times. Each time Saleh has promised to sign such an agreement and each time he has backed down. So now the goal is to simply convince Saleh to return to Yemen, formally transfer power to his vice president, who's been running the country for the last two months anyway, and agree to new elections in the coming months. The key to this agreement is a guarantee of immunity so Saleh doesn't end up in court like deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTING)

MCEVERS: That proposal angers protestors, who still gather here every night at a place they call Change Square. Khaled al Anisi is a key leader of the protest movement who lives in the hundreds of tents at the square. He says it's shameful for the international community to promise immunity to Saleh.

KHALED AL ANISI: He killed many protestors. And they give him forgiveness for all of this crime. It is against American values, Europe values. They know Ali Abdullah Saleh killed innocent people.

MCEVERS: Even if some protestors did eventually agree to immunity as a way to force Saleh from power, there's still no guarantees Saleh himself will sign on to the current deal.

MCEVERS: war. Even before the crisis, Yemen was a volatile place with separatist conflicts, tribal battles and a growing al-Qaida presence. Now, on top of all that, the country is divided. You're either with Saleh or against him. While protestors have vowed to remain peaceful, others who oppose Saleh have taken up arms against troops that remain loyal to the president.

Mohammad Abu Lahoum says Saleh's regime is provoking this violence as a way to stay in power.

ABU LAHOUM: Those that are desperate or those that feel they will lose their interest, and there are quite many of them, this is the only way. Without mess, without war, without any problems, they will never survive.

MCEVERS: One big fight going on right now is in a region just north of the capital, Sana'a. A tribe that opposes Saleh has been fighting against the Republican Guard, a well-trained and well-equipped branch of the military controlled by Saleh's son. The tribe has threatened to take the airport here in the capital by this weekend if government troops don't relent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROSSTALK)

MCEVERS: At a gathering of opposition figures who sit and debate and negotiate while chewing mildly narcotic qat leaves, we ask a leader of that tribe whether those are just words or a real threat. In war, he says, everything is possible.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Sana'a.

INSKEEP: So we have a trial in Egypt, quiet for the moment in Yemen, and a crackdown in Syria, where Syria's action against protestors has brought more and more disapproval from around the world. The United Nations has condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But as our colleague Jackie Northam reports elsewhere in today's program, the U.N. stopped well short of anything that would pave the way to intervene in Syria.

MONTAGNE: This remains a conflict between protestors and the tanks of the regime. Both the protestors and the crackdown have intensified during this Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Activists contend that Syrian forces have killed several people who took part in nighttime protests after special Ramadan prayers.

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