Last week in Yemen, in the worst bloodshed since anti-government rallies began in January, attacks by government security forces against peaceful protesters devolved into armed clashes in the heart of the capital. Although the spasm of violence looked like the latest case of a brutal government suppressing demonstrators as part of the Arab Spring, it was propelled by an internal power struggle that had percolated for several years -- and that took a complicated new twist with the surprise return of the country's wounded president on Friday.
A popular uprising has indeed gripped Yemen for months now, but the movement has been hijacked by three elite factions vying for control of the government. President Ali Abdullah Saleh's impromptu return may simply harden the battle lines, plunging the country into civil war. Since arriving in Sanaa, the president has continued to sidestep accelerating international demands for his immediate resignation and has accused his opponents of supporting al Qaeda.
Initially inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, students and other protesters began taking to the streets in cities across Yemen in January. They demanded greater democratic freedoms, an end to corruption and poverty, and the resignation of Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 33 years. They are the public faces of the movement -- and they are also the primary victims of the violence the government has unleashed in response. State security forces and pro-government assailants have killed at least 225 protesters and bystanders during largely peaceful demonstrations, with dozens left dead in recent days alone.
Had influential governments such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia moved swiftly, they might have pressured Saleh to heed the protesters' calls. Instead, the international community dithered as Saleh feigned interest in a deal to step down from power. By June, when Saleh was badly wounded by an assassination attempt and fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, the world's attention was already turning to uprisings in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. Yemen's pro-democracy protests
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