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The wave hits Yemen

While the main story today is obviously the fast-developing and increasingly violent chaos on the streets of Cairo, there's also a major development in Yemen. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978, has announced that he will step down at the end of his term in 2013. Recent amendments to the constitution would have allowed him to run for another two 10-year terms.

"I won't seek to extend my presidency for another term or have my son inherit it," Saleh told the parliament.

Saleh has earlier tried to defuse simmering tensions in Yemen by raising salaries for the army and by denying opponents' claims he plans to install his son as his successor.

Like Egypt and Tunisia before it, the offer has not placated the demonstrators on the streets of Sanaa, and a new mass protest has been called for Thursday.

While he has not always been the most stalwart of U.S. allies -- supporting Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, for instance -- Saleh has been publicly supportive of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts and has been a major recipient of U.S. aid since the 2000 USS Cole bombing. 

With Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali toppled, Mubarak and Saleh promising to step down, and Jordan's King Abdullah rearranging the deck chairs, the question now seems less whether the popular uprising in the Arab world will spread, than who's next. Keep an eye on Khartoum, where daily Internet-organized demonstrations have been held since Sunday. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, already weakened politically by the impending separation of the southern half of his country, has clamped down hard, arresting more than 100 of the demonstrators.   

GAMAL NOMAN/AFP/Getty Images

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As pro-Mubarak demonstrators roam Cairo, Egypt's Internet roars back to life

At 11:29 a.m. Cairo time, Egypt's Internet roared back to life Wednesday after more than five days of darkness, and a cacophony of Egyptian voices returned to Twitter, Facebook, and various other social-networking sites to express their anger over last night's speech by President Hosni Mubarak.

The immediate reason for the blackout's end seemed to be the Army's call for demonstrators to return their homes, a message sent to thousands of Egyptian mobile subscribers.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Mubarak supporters hit the streets of Cairo in an ominous sign that the regime was determined to hang on and perhaps exact a measure of vengeance for its humiliation over the last week. Many Egyptian tweeters claimed that the pro-Mubarak demonstrators were motivated by money or were government employees and security forces forced to be there against their will. While Mubarak undoubtedly retains some measure of support, nobody thinks these demos are spontaneous expressions of popular sentiment.

Several news organizations -- CNN, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and ABC News, among others -- reported being assaulted or otherwise intimidated by the pro-Mubarak groups, thousands of whom entered Cairo's Tahrir Square shortly before 2 p.m. local time. Lara Setrakian tweeted that it was a "dangerous and combustible situation" in the square, with both sides squaring off against each other and chanting opposing slogans. There are similar reports of clashes in Alexandria.

So now we see the regime's strategy emerging: concede Mubarak's sixth term, divide and conquer the opposition and buy some off with concessions, and send its thugs to intimidate the remaining protesters into going home. The government has made no promises to revoke the hated Emergency Law, and it seems that Mubarak's "constitional reform" will be aimed at allowing his new deputy, Omar Suleiman, to contest this fall's presidential election.

The Wall Street Journal also cleared up a major mystery, shedding some light on the sudden disappearance of the police last Friday:

At 4 p.m., the battles appeared to tip decisively in the protesters' favor. An order came down from Mr. Mubarak to the Minister of Interior, Habib al-Adly to use live ammunition to put down the protests, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Mr. al-Adly passed on the order to his top lieutenant, Gen. Ahmed Ramzy—but Mr. Ramzy refused, according to this person.

"It was a poor assessment of what [orders] his generals would take from him," this person said.

When Mr. Mubarak saw that Mr. Adly wouldn't get the job done, he gave the order for the army to deploy, this person said. Mr. Adly was furious, according to the person. Mr. Adly then gave a sweeping order to pull all police from the streets, from lowly traffic monitors, to prison guards, to the vast armies of truncheon-wielding riot police that had been a ubiquitous presence around Egypt for decades.

"That withdrawal was a disastrous mistake," said Fuad Allam, a former commander of the country's internal security forces. "You just can't do that."

The deployment orders caught the military by surprise, according to soldiers.

"No one expected it," a junior officer said on Monday. "The order came and four hours later we were on the streets."

This story offers a slight twist on the going rope-a-dope theory -- that Mubarak ordered the police to disappear in order to create enough chaos to scare middle- and upper-class Egyptians into supporting a return of order and stability. In the WSJ's version, which seems very well sourced, it was the Interior Minstry itself that launched this strategy in a bid to show Mubarak that it was still essential to his regime.

This could get very ugly indeed. As I write, pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators look like they are about to rumble in Tahrir Square. The results could be very bloody -- just as Mubarak & co. intend.

UPDATE: It has indeed gotten bloody, with pitched battles in the square between the two sides. In a surreal moment, pro-Mubarak thugs rode into the square atop horses, camels, and donkeys. I am not joking. More later.