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Explainer: Ivory Coast crisis -- What's at stake?

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Political stalemate in the Ivory Coast
  • The presidential standoff in Ivory Coast threatens regional stability
  • Alassan Ouattara widely recognized as winner of November elections
  • Self-declared Laurent Gbagbo refuses to step down, defying international pressure
  • Regional countries threaten to use "legitimate force" to resolve situation

(CNN) -- Ivory Coast remains in a political crisis triggered by the country's disputed presidential election on November 28.

Challenger Alassan Ouattara was initially declared the winner by the country's Independent Electoral Commission. But that result was overturned by the Constitutional Council which claimed incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo had won.

Since then self-declared president Gbagbo has held on to power despite protests by regional powers, the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union who all recognized Ouattara as the winner. Efforts to persuade Gbagbo, in power since 2000, to step down by persuasion and threat have so far failed.

Will Gbagbo back down?

Gbagbo has shown no sign 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 and used security troops to crackdown on protests. The U.N. claims Gbagbo's backers have been responsible for at least 173 deaths and other human rights abuses since the election. Those allegations are denied by Gbagbo's supporters. Gbagbo has ordered U.N. peacekeepers, currently numbering more than 9,000 personnel according to the United Nations Operation in Cote d'Ivoire website, to withdraw from the country. The U.N. says it intends to keep its force in the country.

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).

What efforts are being made to make Gbagbo step down?

Internationally-recognized president Ouattara has formed a shadow government and is currently living and working from an Abidjan hotel protected by U.N. peacekeepers. He has attempted to seize state institutions from Gbagbo with U.N. support.

On Friday Ouattara ordered the army to desert Gbagbo and protect the population against militias and foreign mercenaries but military leaders have so far remained loyal to Gbagbo. Ouattara also called for a general strike on Monday but most Ivorians failed to heed his call.

Gbagbo has also faced concerted international pressure to quit. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened to use "legitimate force," as well as sanctions, to remove him from power. But Gbagbo's foreign minister, Alcide Djedje, says the threat is part of a plot spearheaded by France. He says the incumbent government considers military action unlikely.

African reaction to Ivory Coast standoff
Apathy spreads among Ivorian population

Presidents Yayi Boni of Benin, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and Pedro Pires of Cape Verde on Tuesday met with Gbagbo, and separately with Ouattara, in an effort to defuse the crisis. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the present chair of ECOWAS and the leader of West Africa's most powerful nation, said Wednesday that talks would resume next week.

"We are still talking," he told reporters, according to Agence-France Presse. "People are negotiating. We are discussing. That is why they are going back."

One concern is that the international pressure may 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.

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 of being foreigners; Gbagbo has reportedly accused Ouattara of being a foreigner who therefore should not be running the country.

Journalist Eric Agnero told CNN: "The security situation is not tense yet but I was touring Abidjan today and I bumped into a bunch of former Liberian refugees that now live in Ivory Coast. They were gathering in front of the U.N. building saying they were under threat in their neighborhoods because of allegations of Liberian mercenaries fighting alongside Gbagbo's troops.

"Some Nigerians also demonstrated in the street asking the international community to avoid military action because there might be a threat to foreign people. They are fearful for their safety."

Is civil war likely?

Ivory Coast is still living with the consequences of its last civil conflict in 2002 which saw the country divided between the government-held south and the rebel-held north. Since then, the U.N. peacekeeping force has policed tensions in the country.

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 new war.

But 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.

Journalist Francois-Xavier Menage told CNN the loyalty of some in the army appeared to be wavering: "For a few weeks the head of the army has supported Gbagbo. But now if you take the army in general it is more difficult to understand what is happening . What we know from many observers is that the army is still supporting Gbagbo but we hear some of them are now approaching Ouattara to tell him that it's ok for them to support him."

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. A civil war in Ivory Coast could tip the whole region back into chaos.

CNN's Christian Purefoy contributed to this report.