Supporter of Alassane Ouattara stand next to the bodies of two men reportedly killed by Ivorian police and army forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo on December 16.
The tensions that have swept Ivory Coast show no signs of abating as incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo ordered U.N. peacekeeping forces out of the country on Saturday.
At stake is the leadership of the country and its contested presidential election, as well as the stability of the region.
The U.S. and EU have threatened sanctions against the west African nation if Gbagbo doesn't vacate office. The United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union and the African Union have all declared Alassan Ouattara as the winner of the November 28 presidential runoff, but the country's Constitutional Council invalidated those results and declared Gbagbo the winner.
Violence has broken out between supporters of Gbagbo and Ouattara. On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on Gbagbo to step down.
Here's a look at the critical factors in the presidential standoff:
Will Gbagbo back down?
Gbagbo shows no signs of relinquishing power. Before these recent elections, he postponed elections six times in five years to maintain power. He's ignored all threats by the international community so far and used security troops to crackdown on Ouattara's protests. On Saturday he ordered the U.N. to leave Ivory Coast -- although it's unlikely the U.N. will listen to a man they don't recognize as president.
Is the threat of international sanctions likely to work?
Gbagbo has the support of the military and still controls many of the state institutions such as state-run television stations (some people in Ivory Coast are unaware of the ongoing crisis and presume Gbagbo is the president, as is being reported by state TV). As long as the military support him, Gbagbo's position is protected. Ouattara is meanwhile "governing" from a hotel in Abidjan, the nation's largest city. His is being guarded by the U.N., which has about 10,000 troops in the nation.
International sanctions and regional threats will likely to continue to have little effect. However, if agencies can cut off his ability to pay the military and civil service -- as some agencies are threatening to do -- that may push more people to support Ouattara.
One concern is that the international pressure may be push Gbagbo into a corner from which he will feel no safe way to back down. The White House has talked of him taking up exile in a neighboring country. But that may not comfort Gbagbo -- former Liberian President Charles Taylor's exile in Nigeria ended up with him being taken to the Hague, where he is on trial for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
What is Ouattara's game plan?
Ouattara continues to plan protests and attempts to seize state institutions from Gbagbo with U.N. support. These attempts have so far been met with violence by Gbagbo's security forces. Both sides are being careful about escalating the situation for fear of shouldering the blame and losing what they perceive as the moral high-ground. Neither candidate appears ready to spark a civil war.
The only way Ouattara's can respond with force is from his support base in the north (the country was effectively split in the 2002 civil war). But they will likely be of limited capability and unable to 'march' on Abidjan unless supported by a foreign power.
Will the street violence get worse?
At the moment, the stalemate is likely to mean more violence. The French still remain very concerned about violence against the thousands of French citizens in the nation, who are increasingly at risk because of France's support of Ouattara.
That plays to a dynamic that Gbagbo has seized upon to hold onto power: the question of citizenship and 'Who is Ivorian?' has fed the tensions that dog Ivory Coast. Many in the south accuse those in the north as being foreigners; Gbagbo has reportedly accused Ouattara of being a foreigner who therefore should not be running the country.
Is civil war likely?
As long as the military supports Gbagbo it remains a viable and dangerous option. The concern is a civil war in Ivory Coast will drag in other very vulnerable states in the region -- especially Liberia, whose warlords will likely be courted by Gbagbo to counter official opposition by the Liberian government. A civil war in Ivory Coast could tip the whole region back into chaos.