Once stable, a proud Yemeni city struggles to hold on amid violence

Yemen's city of Taiz touts its legacy of education and civic-mindedness, but the power vacuum of the past two years has bred instability.

Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters/File
A family draws drinking water from a well in Yemen's city of Taiz April 1, 2013.

Ali al-Kamaly thought that ending his wedding celebration in his and his bride's native city of Taiz would be a fitting capstone to a week of festivities in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. But when soldiers attacked his wedding party, it seemed as if his decision would mar the start of his marriage with tragedy.

As the wedding convoy began to pass through a military checkpoint at the entrance to its final destination, a luxury hotel perched on one of Taiz’s many hilltops, soldiers assaulted members of the wedding party who followed on foot, striking them with rifle butts and shooting in the area and in the direction of nearby vehicles, transforming the mood of celebration into one of panic.

Although the incident ended with everyone safe, and members of the wedding party defiantly refused to allow the incident to spoil festivities, few could refrain from lamenting the deterioration of security in their once calm native city.

The instability of the past two years has laid this proud and formerly well-off city low, crippling local factories and businesses and causing a security breakdown in a city accustomed to good governance.

Nestled in the mountains a five-hour drive south of Sanaa, Taiz and the surrounding province lie just above the pre-1990 border that once split Yemen into separately governed northern and southern halves. Locals are keen to stress their difference with Yemenis from further north. 

Taiz, the third-largest city, is largely Sunni, while Zaydi Shiites dominate in Sanaa and the north. But religious differences are not the driver of the division, nor are tribal ties that have caused rifts elsewhere in the country.  

Natives say it’s a matter of culture. Taizis cast their city as uniquely civic-oriented, home to one of Yemen's largest universities and many of the country's factories.  They point out that Taiz is disproportionately represented in the ranks of Yemen’s businessmen and intellectuals, and attribute that to the historical strength of its educational institutions. That pride prompts complaints directed at northern tribal elites,  who many Taizis accused of hoarding wealth and power during former President Ali Abdullah Saleh's rule and seeking to stifle the city’s culture and potential.

For most of Mr. Saleh's three decades in power, such sentiments were limited to resigned grumblings, but when Arab Spring-inspired protests erupted in Yemen in 2011, the city quickly emerged as a hotbed of the uprising against Saleh.

As scores of protesters were slain in crackdowns by pro-government troops, powerful local Saleh opponents took up arms in response. The once-rare sight of armed men in the city’s streets became normal, as did violent clashes; on-and-off fighting continued for weeks, even after Saleh inked a deal to transfer power to his vice president in November 2011. 

Two years later, violence has become comparatively rare, and shakeups in local leadership indicate attempts to move on from the problems of Saleh's rule. The province’s new governor, Shawqi Hail Said, a scion of a prominent local business family appointed to replace controversial Saleh-aligned governor Hamoud al-Soufi last year, has garnered international praise for his moves to combat corruption and increase transparency.

But in Taiz itself, unemployment and security tend to take center stage over reforms to promote better governance, and anger simmers amid complaints that the efforts of officials here and in Sanaa to regain stability have proven far from sufficient. Locals often accuse local politicians of manipulating the situation for their own benefit.

Despite demilitarization efforts, sporadic clashes between armed men and security forces remain common. Locals lament that the instability has opened the door for criminal activity and bemoan the economic stagnation of a city once considered Yemen’s industrial capital. 

“We’ve seen some improvements over the past two years and since [Shawqi Hail’s] appointment,” said Bassim al-Hakimi, a youth activist from Taiz and delegate in Yemen’s Conference of National Dialogue, an ongoing meeting of representatives from different political and societal factions to address  systemic issues. “But they’ve only come gradually and, in total, are far from enough.”

Many here tie the city's problems to a larger issue, arguing that Taiz has been forgotten amid more dire problems elsewhere, such as widespread desire for secession in the formerly independent south and the lingering effects of a decade-long insurgency in the far north.

The revolutionary zeal of 2011 has faded, and the dominant mood is now one of anxiety as Taizis speculate about where the situation is headed if the city's grievances remain unresolved.

“Look at the talk coming out of Sanaa. Does it really have anything to do with the concerns of an average person here?” says one local official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “People want security, they want to live in dignity, they want jobs and a decent economy. Nothing will improve if these things aren’t taken care of. The situation will only get worse.”

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