The United States would like to buttress the government in Yemen, an ally in the Gulf and a bulwark against a virulent al Qaeda cell that would flourish in the chaos of a government collapse. But even a new counterterrorism program announced by Pentagon officials Monday to train Yemeni forces against al Qaeda may prove too little too late, a Yemeni diplomat told The Washington Examiner.
"The support we're getting today is the support we should've been getting three decades ago," the Yemeni diplomat said. "The average Yemeni citizen is not worried about who's running the show but how they are going to feed their kids."
The Yemeni official said his nation could unravel because of "deep tribal divisions and equally divided anti-government protestors and pro-government supporters. ... We don't know where things will end up in an armed conflict."
The chances of a peaceful outcome in Yemen are not nearly as good as in Egypt.
"Tribes are armed to the teeth, and violence would be inevitable. Saleh has a second chance, and his chance is to follow through this time and to step up to reforms, but the budget isn't there," the diplomat said.
Yemen has an annual budget of $7 billion dollars, "roughly the budget of three public U.S. universities," the official added.
Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned that Yemen's severe poverty and ongoing divisive tribal conflicts make the place a tinderbox.
"I don't think that the U.S. government or academia really understand who makes decisions in Yemen and why," Boucek said. "Until we figure that out, we can't have a good plan of action. ... Yemen is posed for very bad things."
U.S. officials fear a collapse of the Saleh government in Yemen could give al Qaeda's offshoot al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) a base of operations that would rival what Afghanistan was in the 1990s.
That terrorist group was created in 2009 by combining al Qaeda operations in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to form a single organization. One of the CIA's most wanted terrorists, American-born Yemen cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, has emerged as the group's leader.
Other nations are feeling the reverberations of pro-democracy demonstrations. On the emirate island of Bahrain, riot police pelted protesters with rubber bullets and dispersed tear gas to break up protesters Monday calling for a new constitution.
In Algeria, thousands of protesters are calling for the end to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's government.
Meanwhile, protests are spreading through Iran. The regime took dozens of demonstrators into custody Monday and put opposition leaders under house arrest. The clashes were violent, according to reports.
Thousands opposed to the theocratic government in Tehran marched through the streets of that city. It was the first major demonstration since the Iranian government's security forces hammered protesters in December 2009, leaving eight people dead.
According to reports from the region, protesters were still spilling into the streets late Monday.
Al Jazeera, the main Arab news outlet, reported that the demonstrators were confronted by roughly "10,000 security force members" who used pepper spray and batons to try to keep the crowd under control. The news outlet also reported that opposition leaders who had been ordered to stay in their homes were seen taking part in the march.
The developments are unsettling to U.S. military and foreign policy officials charged with being on top of cascading events.
"We need a big picture view on this," Boucek said. "We're all in this together, and from this point on everything will change."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.