The U.S.-backed president of Yemen suffered a devastating political blow Sunday when his own powerful tribe demanded his resignation, joining religious leaders, young people and the country's traditional opposition in calls for an end to his three decades in power.
Massive crowds flooded cities and towns across this impoverished and volatile nation, screaming in grief and anger as they mourned dozens of protesters killed Friday when President Ali Abdullah Saleh's security forces opened fire from rooftops on a demonstration in the capital.
Saleh appeared to be trying to hold on, firing his entire Cabinet ahead of what one government official said was a planned mass resignation, but making no mention of stepping down himself. Yemen's ambassador to the United Nations and its human rights minister had announced their resignations earlier in the day.
Experts said that Saleh, who has cooperated closely with U.S. military operations against his country's branch of the al-Qaida terrorist network, had lost the support of every major power base in Yemen except the military.
Many said he would now be forced to choose between stepping down and confronting demonstrators with even deadlier force.
"We're talking a new set of dynamics that are driving the conflict into either the resignation of Saleh or a very serious clash between the two sides," said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. "The U.S. should work now on an orderly transition in Yemen and press Saleh to find an arrangement that doesn't allow chaos."
Sharqieh said from Washington that it was far from clear what form of leadership would succeed Saleh if he departs. Options could include a military-run transitional government and an administration of traditional political opposition parties.
Sharqieh described the Obama administration as "extremely worried."
Saleh and his weak government have faced down many serious challenges, often forging tricky alliances with restive tribes to delicately extend power beyond this capital city. Most recently, he has battled an on-and-off, seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and an al-Qaida offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which formed in January 2009, has moved beyond regional aims and attacked the West, including sending a suicide bomber who came terrifyingly close to blowing up a U.S.-bound airliner with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.
The Yemeni government appeared to shy away from more violence for the moment, disbanding police and special forces around Sana University, which has been the center of the deadly crackdown, and replacing them with a largely unarmed force.