Is Taiz Going to Be the Benghazi of Yemen?
> Tom Finn / Taiz
Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2011
During the day, Taiz, a mountainous municipality nestled in the basin of
Yemen's rugged central highlands, has the feel of any other Yemeni city.
Scrawny teenagers with wheelbarrows filled with oranges weave in and out of
the traffic dodging debabs - local six-seater microbuses - and motorbikes as
they splutter up and down the city's steep, dusty alleyways. But once the
sun begins to set and the mountains surrounding the bowl of the city darken
into jagged silhouettes, the wail of the muezzins soon competes with the
ominous thud of explosions.
Taiz is famed for its doctors, lawyers and relative cosmopolitanism, but it
was its youth who in February jump-started the movement in Yemen to oust the
wily, decades-long ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power. Inspired by their
counterparts in Tunis and Cairo, a group of men and women - most of them
students - erected a circle of tents on a dusty boulevard in downtown Taiz
and named it Freedom Square. Since then they have spent months braving a
barrage of bullets, batons and tear-gas canisters from the security forces,
marching through the city's grubby streets and calling for change.
> (See photos
of Yemen on the brink.)
But in recent weeks the conflict in Taiz has taken on a more deadly twist.
With tribal fighters and antigovernment militias entering the fray, the city
of 460,000 residents has become a battleground where plainclothes gunmen and
government troops hurl mortars and rockets at each other from the
mountaintops. A murky and bloody power struggle between the remnants of
Saleh's regime and those seeking to eradicate it has eclipsed the civilian
uprising and is threatening to derail a fragile new government of national
unity. While the political negotiations go in the north, the battle rages on
in Taiz, the outcome of which may determine the fate of Yemen.
Peering out a window of his high-walled residence perched above the city,
Hamoud al-Sofi, the city's governor, claims Taiz is under siege by gunmen
from the Islamic opposition party, al-Islah, portions of which he believes
are bent on grabbing power for themselves. "Anyone who tells you the
opposition in Taiz is peaceful is lying. They are heavily armed, and they
want to topple Taiz and make it their Benghazi," says al-Sofi, referring to
the rebel city that the Libyan opposition used to leverage Muammar Gaddafi
out of power - violently. He grimaces apologetically as another explosion
shakes the city below. "They're attacking us from all directions with
mortars, artillery, antiaircraft guns and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades].
This is not a peaceful uprising, it's war." A lynchpin city straddling north
and south, with an international airport and access to the Red Sea, Taiz
would certainly make a decent makeshift capital for the opposition, one
where they could organize and recruit supporters.
2101654,00.html> (See the Arab Spring as one of the year's top 10 stories.)
Meanwhile, a U.S.-backed peace accord signed by Saleh on Nov. 23
transferring presidential powers to his deputy in exchange for immunity from
prosecution has so far done little to ease anxieties there. Riled by the
thought of Saleh escaping trial and with his sons and nephews retaining
positions of power in the military, demonstrators have pressed on with a new
energy, marching daily in towns and cities across Yemen.
In Taiz, the past week has been brutal. Enraged by the hit-and-run tactics
of the rebels, government troops have started raining antiaircraft missiles
and rocket-propelled grenades down on the city from their garrisons on the
hilltops. Doctors say that since the beginning of December over 15 civilians
have been killed, among them a woman and a child crushed by a falling shell.
Last week Human Rights Watch declared that 35 unarmed residents of the city
had been killed since Oct. 21, when the U.N. issued Security Council
Resolution 2014 calling for a cessation of the use of excessive force by the
Saleh regime against legitimate peaceful protests.
That narrative of autocratic intransigence - not one of a rising rebel city
- is what emerges a few miles across Taiz in the rundown district of Haseb,
the center of the fighting. Over there blackened, bullet-pocked houses with
blown-out windows overlook streets strewn with heaps of smoldering rubbish,
hobbling stray dogs and cars and buses crumpled by fallen shells. "Only
Saleh and his boys stand to benefit from this chaos," says Sheik Hamoud
Saeed al-Mikhlafi, the man leading the armed rebellion in the city,
beckoning to a water tank on his roof gnarled by an antiaircraft missile.
"After signing the GCC [a reference to the Gulf Cooperation Council
agreement that hopes to ease the Yemeni President out of power], we expected
Saleh to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment, but instead he returned
to Yemen and began setting fires. He is trying to provoke protesters to take
up arms and bring an all-out war in Yemen, so that the regime can escape
from meeting its commitments to the GCC initiative and he can forfeit the
need to abdicate."
Al-Mikhlafi, a handsome man with graying hair and an iPhone and handgun
clipped neatly to his belt, is one of a number of tribal sheiks from the
surrounding countryside who sent armed fighters to attack government
buildings, military installments and soldiers after government forces in May
stormed through Freedom Square setting fire to and bulldozing tents. A
member of the Islamist party and a cousin of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate
Tawakkul Karman, he says that his men control one-third of Taiz and that if
he wanted to he could take the rest of the city in a matter of days. "We are
willing to withdraw from the city once the army stops attacking protesters,"
he says tossing his revolver deftly from one hand to the other. "We are
guarding the revolution, we have no ambitions beyond that."
> (Read about
the clash between armed tribesmen and government troops in Taiz.)
Wedged between these two warring factions are the thousand die-hard
protesters camped out in their tents under the blistering Arabian sun. They
too are bearing the brunt of the violence. Last Monday a 20-year-old woman
died from severe blood loss after being shot in the chest by a plainclothes
sniper poised on a nearby rooftop. But opinion among the inhabitants of
Freedom Square remains divided over the role of the rebel gunmen, with some
touting them as "heroes and protectors of the revolution" and others
deriding them for derailing their peaceful protest.
"Saleh has two goals, to exhaust us and to divide us," said Abdul Kader
al-Guneid, a doctor from Taiz and Twitter activist. "If we share a common
enemy in Saleh, we would be foolish not to accept [the armed rebels'] help.
Saleh wants to convince people this is a political crisis, a conflict
between the tribes, not a revolution."
The coming months look to be decisive for Yemen. With the country's fate, at
least for now, back in the hands of its politicians, all eyes are on the
hodgepodge government of national unity sworn in on Saturday. But after
months of political deadlock and stalling, patience on the ground is wafer
thin. If the post-Saleh government does not act soon on its commitments -
restructuring the fractured armed forces, drawing up a new constitution and
reforming the electoral system - tensions could easily boil over again. With
Saleh's aged Vice President, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, set to be the only
candidate, the upcoming elections in February are unlikely to quench the
thirst of the demonstrators whose demands from the start have been broader
and more fundamental.
For now, suspicion and apprehension reign over Taiz's Freedom Square.
Protesters there say that even when Saleh relinquishes the presidency in
February, he will still be in a position to pull the strings, unless members
of his family are also removed from key positions in the security forces.
Meanwhile al-Hadi, the man expected to lead Yemen through a two-year
transition of reform, they say, is little more than a puppet of the
President. Reinforcing their unrelenting calls for change, a new banner was
strung across the square's entrance last week that reads "Al-Tariq Amaamunaa
Tawiil," or "The Road Ahead of Us Is Long."
the top 10 everything of 2011.
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Received on Wed Dec 14 2011 - 06:07:33 EST