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In Yemen, civil war comes to Saleh's door

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose compound was attacked today, appears unable to shut down the unprecedented challenge to his 32-year rule.

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Saleh's disparate opponents

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Saleh’s rule over the unified Republic of Yemen has been troubled since 1994, when a civil war broke out just four years after he unified North Yemen with the socialist south. While Saleh's forces prevailed in that war, the southern secessionist movement gained strength over the following decade.

Saleh has quelled the movement, with some success, through brutal crackdowns on protests.

Similarly, Saleh has used the full force of his military against Houthi rebels in the north of the country, who feel marginalized by the Saleh regime and who subscribe to a strain of Shiite Islam that they see as threatened by Yemen's alliance with Sunni Saudi Arabia. Since fighting first broke out in June 2004, Saleh's forces have fought an on-again, off-again war with Houthi rebels. The rebels were led by former member of parliament Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who was killed in a suspected Al Qaeda attack in November 2010.

However, Yemen’s protest movement, spearheaded by students, seems to be uniting these disparate groups.

“We don’t need to secede from the north once Saleh is gone. Our problems in the south stem from a corrupt government,” says Ms. Jamal, the youth activist in Aden, which was the former capital of South Yemen. “People are leaving the Southern Movement.”

Similarly, members of the Houthi rebellion have taken up residence at Change Square, Sanaa’s protest camp in front of Sanaa University.

“Our vision is clear and we share this vision with all of Yemen. We call for a civil state and equal citizenship for all Yemenis. We demand true democracy,” says Houthi leader Ali al-Emad from his tent in Change Square.

In post-Saleh era, a federal system of government?

Yemen now appears to be quickly slipping into a full-blown civil war, presenting an impending humanitarian disaster for its citizens and a major challenge for US foreign policy. Saleh has been a willing if wily ally of US counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, which is home to an Al Qaeda branch now seen by some in Washington as more threatening that the remnants of Osama bin Laden's organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As Yemen moves forward, bringing its disparate groups into a government with proper representation will be a daunting task..

Some have suggested a system of asymmetric federalism, similar to the Indian model, with different states granted different powers under a single constitution. In such a system, regions would be granted a level autonomy that is seen fit for the population.

However, the top priority for Yemen now is to transition into a post-Saleh era, says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist based at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“[A federal system] may be the best path eventually but Yemen is a long way from that," says Mr. Johnsen, reached by e-mail in Cairo. "The first step is moving away from President Saleh's rule and to do that Yemen will eventually need to set up some sort of representative transitional council.”

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