As the world focuses on turmoil in Egypt, a simmering insurrection is threatening to boil over in Yemen, with potentially dire consequences for the United States, analysts said. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Yemen's cities this week, imperiling the corrupt government of one of the world's poorest countries -- one that has become a haven for some of the most dangerous al Qaeda operatives.

The fall of Yemen would unravel years of efforts by American officials who have worked closely with Yemeni leaders to stop al Qaeda from turning the country into the kind of stronghold Afghanistan was before 9/11.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who was an adviser to President Obama on Afghanistan-Pakistan review, said a collapse of the government in Yemen would be a major blow in the fight against terrorism.

"Yemen is already a weak state with a host of problems," Riedel said. "If it now faces mass protests the government will have even less resources to fight [al Qaeda.]"

Tens of thousands of Yemeni citizens took to the streets Thursday demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh resign. Saleh, whose been in power for 32 years, was discussing a constitutional amendment that would make his presidency a life term.

After the protests erupted, he made promises to slash income taxes in half and raised the pay of his military and security officials. Experts say he won't be able to sustain the changes or fulfill promises without help.

Christopher Boucek, a Yemen specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the administration needs to look beyond the al Qaeda presence in Yemen and focus on the "bigger issues" of economic reform, corruption and malcontent among the civilian population in the Arab world.

Boucek said if events proceed without change in Yemen the government will collapse. He said there are stark similarities between what happened in Tunisia and what could easily unfold in Yemen.

Al Qaeda has waged a successful propaganda war in Yemen, experts said, using government corruption and Saleh's overtures to the United States to create unrest. "We need to support the Yemeni government while they make changes but they need to make changes," Boucek said. "If they don't make those changes the situation is going to get worse -- state failure or state collapse."

The terrorist group merged in Saudi Arabia and Yemen to form a single organization in early 2009. It calls itself al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki has emerged as the group's leader. Al-Awlaki, an American of Yemeni decent, is believed to be hiding in Yemen. He is the only American on the CIA's list of important targets to apprehend or kill.

Boucek said the people of Yemen are justifiably angry at the Saleh government. "You look at Yemen and you have a very wealthy elite in control and everybody else. Most of the population gets by on a dollar a day," he said.

That creates a dilemma for the United States, experts said -- continue to back a corrupt government in an effort to deny al Qaeda a key base, or deal with the inevitable chaos if that government collapses.

Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at