SANAA – Reluctance of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in the face of an eight-month popular uprising and ambitions of elite tribal and military leaders are undermining Yemen’s fabric and pushing its fast-growing population into a battle for survival.
"Yemen has entered an almost permanent deterioration that will take years, if not decades, to reverse," a Western diplomat in Sanaa told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"It's hard to accept, but we're not going to get closure with a political deal. We are in for a long haul for decades."
Saleh has been facing growing popular protests for an end to his 32-year rule of the poor Arabian Peninsula country.
Yemen’s Gulf neighbors have floated an initiative that would have allowed Saleh to step down in return for immunity, a proposal the Yemeni leader declined to sign three times.
In response to Saleh’s refusal to resign, tribesmen and insurgents began to chip swathes of the country away from government control.
In the south, Al-Qaeda-linked militants reportedly seized control of some coastal cities. This also applies to southern separatists, who block major highways.
In the north, Shiite rebels have taken over Saada province and are fighting for control of nearby al-Jawf province.
"These takeovers have a more political agenda with separatists groups gaining ground," Yemeni analyst and journalist Sami al-Ghalib told Reuters.
"Disintegration will spread as we see local groups establish their own cantons or emirates."
Tribes have often challenged the government’s authority in return for offers.
In past years, tribesmen kidnapped foreigners in return for cash or development projects by the government.
"Saleh is just the strongman of the strongest faction in the country, which is all factions now," said one Yemeni official, who asked not to be named.
Is it a State?
Displaced Yemenis from Abyan said that security forces abandoned provincial capital Zinjibar without a fight when militants first entered in March.
"What's happening is a joke," Ahmad Mohammed, 21, who fled Zinjibar when shelling burned his home to the ground, told Reuters.
"A five-month war by the Yemeni army, backed by America, against what, some 500 militants? Does that sound right?"
A Yemeni official said troops loyal to Saleh are three times stronger in numbers and equipment than their foes in the capital.
In return, Saleh’s foes, including Gen. Ali Mohsen, who defected to the opposition in March, are seeking to recruit the unarmed protestors.
Mohsen and pro-opposition tribes are also trying to weaken the government troops by attacking them in other regions.
"I don't think anything can happen soon," one negotiator said.
"Neither side can win and we have told them this, but we can't force them to do anything, we just have to keep talking and convince them the only way forward is a deal."
Some analysts question the sincerity of Western and Gulf mediators, saying they had the ability to swing a solution, but lacked the political will.
"They haven't been able to show Saleh the door and it is not because he is strong," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates consultancy.
"They haven't done so because they can't actually think of an alternative to Saleh."
Aggravated by political deadlock and the accompanying violence, Yemen's gravest long-term threat is a swelling humanitarian disaster as oil and water resources disappear.
Experts estimate that last year's 35 percent unemployment rate has more than doubled, while two thirds of Yemen's 24 million people may now be living below the poverty line.
That has prompted an increase in emergency humanitarian aid, but insecurity has halted crucial development work.
"You can do as much as you want to save lives, but if no one is offering support to rebuild, the likelihood people will slide right back is much higher," said one aid worker.
Many Yemenis say they have no more money to send to their large families in poor rural areas who rely on them to survive.
UNICEF, the UN children's fund, warns that malnutrition rates in some areas are now on a par with famine-struck Somalia.
Many aid workers and diplomats marvel at how Yemenis retain any semblance of normal life under such conditions.
"Why haven't things gotten as bad as we expected by now?" one Western diplomat asked.
"Many Yemenis have low expectations because they already lived in poverty, and Islamic and tribal norms create a culture of sharing."
But Mohammed al-Maitami, an economist at Sanaa University, said family solidarity may soon reach its limits.
"Those who were helping will need to survive themselves," he said, warning that a potential combination of economic disaster and more sustained conflict could cause mass migration that would alarm Yemen's wealthy and less populous Gulf neighbors."If the fighting grows you will see hundreds of thousands migrating around the country -- and that will mark the end."
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