The Middle East continues to churn. While events in Libya and Syria command most of the world’s attention, developments in Yemen are just as important. The situation there is unraveling and for once the prospect of al-Qaida profiting from the unrest seems real. That is not a reason to disown demonstrators calling for dignity and freedom, but it does complicate the situation as Yemen’s stability collapses.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled Yemen for over three decades. He is the only leader most Yemenis know and a key element of his rule has been preventing any credible alternative leadership from gaining prominence. As part of that strategy he put close family in important positions. Predictably, that move both consolidated his power and encouraged the corruption that is one of the most important complaints of protesters who demand that the president step down.

Corruption is not their only grievance. Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world. About half the population lives on less than $2 a day and one-third of the country is malnourished. Layered atop economic problems is yet another complaint: Claims of discrimination against southern Yemenis.

North and South Yemen were united in 1990 for the first time in their modern history. Within three years, however, a civil war broke out, which resulted in the loss of as many as 10,000 lives. Mr. Saleh prevailed in that struggle, but a sense of inferiority persists among southern Yemenis. Indeed, most observers consider Yemen a still tribal nation in which the central government enjoys little real loyalty.

Yemenis have demanded political reform for over two years, but protests have gained force since late January and swelled along with the reformist currents that are swirling throughout the region. On March 18, security forces fired on demonstrators, killing at least 50 people. That magnified the anger and split the government. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, one of the country’s top military commanders and a close confidant of Mr. Saleh, switched over to support the protesters, as did many other military, tribal and religious leaders.

Mr. Saleh has responded with crackdowns and concessions. He even promised to step down at the end of the year after a new constitution is created and elections have been held. That bid was dismissed by the protesters, pointing out that the president has pledged to resign several times in the past. His credibility is low. Meanwhile, the protests spread in direction and intensity.

Reportedly, however, negotiations are under way to put a transition together. It is said that the biggest obstacle is Mr. Saleh’s demand for guarantees that his family will not suffer the fate of Egypt’s Mr. Hosni Mubarak. He is insisting on legal immunity and access to the wealth that he and his relatives have accumulated while in power.

This situation looks familiar. But in Yemen, unlike many of the other countries experiencing unrest, the prospect of al-Qaida exploiting the instability is real. The country is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a group that was formed in 2009 and has launched a series of terror attacks against the United States and Saudi Arabia, with which Yemen shares a land border.

The al-Qaida group in Yemen has long been considered one of the most sophisticated terror groups in existence: It launched the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has called AQAP “the most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al-Qaida.”

Fears that AQAP could take advantage of the unrest are not exaggerated. There are reports that Islamic militants have taken control of a weapons factory, a strategic mountain and a town in the southern Yemen province of Abyan. Al-Qaida militants are suspected of several attacks on government security forces as well.

Western governments, and the U.S. in particular, are worried that the fall of the Saleh government would undermine a core element of the fight against Islamic terrorists, especially since most top anti-terrorism officials in Yemen are close relatives of the president. That is not a given. Many if not most of the protesters in Yemen have little if any sympathy for al-Qaida’s professed goals of creating a Shariah-ruled state. Instead, they are democrats, tired of the corruption and autocratic rule of the Saleh government. They want political and economic reform, not the substitution of one form of authoritarianism for another.

That does not mean that Mr. Saleh will not try to exploit that fear. It does mean that the West should not give in to it. Western governments must insist on dialogue and peaceful political reform. The boogeyman of al-Qaida must not be used to ignore genuine political grievances.

Yemen is a key player in the fight against terror but that does not give its leaders a blank check. Forgetting that fact is the surest way to make any change more explosive and more destabilizing.

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