Yemen’s Benghazi is a testing ground for national uprising

Yemen's third-largest city, Taiz, is a proving ground, not only for the uprising, but for the notion of a unified Yemen.

Powered by automated translation

The talk in Taiz is of independence. This southern Yemeni city, surrounded by lush green hills, has become the focus of the 10-month old opposition to the three-decade rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

As instability and violence have increasingly gripped Yemen, Taiz, and southerners more generally, have turned their minds to an old question: independence.

In the last week, violence has reignited in the city, with several people killed and dozens injured in clashes with security forces. There are reports that some army units that defected to the protesters have clashed with government forces. Homes have been shelled. Amateur video posted on the internet shows heavy explosions echoing across the city in the middle of the day.

For President Saleh, recently returned from Saudi Arabia, Taiz is Yemen's Benghazi, the stronghold of the revolution and a city that could lead a movement against him. His forces have hit the city hard.

As Yemen's third-largest city, Taiz is a proving ground, not only for the uprising, but for the notion of a unified Yemen. As Libya's Benghazi led the opposition to Qaddafi, so Taiz is becoming a pole of political dissent.

Taiz occupies a unique place in this country of 24 million. Considered the intellectual heart of Yemen, it reflects the secular heritage of the south's socialist days: until the revolution, it was a safe, vibrant city, known for giving succour to fledgling political movements.

Like Benghazi it has been a cradle of revolt. A public campaign has sprouted across the city attacking Mr Saleh's rule. Today, posters of the opposition activist and Nobel Prize winner Tawakkul Karman adorn the streets.

Taiz is a test case because if Mr Saleh can still be believed to be serious about transferring power peacefully and holding the country together, it is in Taiz where that policy has to be made flesh. Yet the signs are not good.

Mr Saleh has continued to maintain that he will leave the presidency, although without specifying when. Speaking on Saturday, he again expressed his support for a GCC transition plan. Last month, the United Nations Security Council called on him to accept the plan and step aside.

Under the plan, which Mr Saleh has repeatedly promised to sign and repeatedly backed out of at the last minute, the president would transfer most of his powers to his deputy, who would also have the power to call early elections. The plan envisages a national unity government that would lead the country during an interim stage and restructure the armed forces.

Last week the state news agency Saba quoted Michele Cervone d'Urso, the EU resident ambassador, expressing optimism that Mr Saleh would leave soon and that Eid "will be an occasion to announce to Yemen and the world that Yemen has passed towards a new stage". But so far nothing.

After renewed attacks on Taiz, pro-independence sentiment has risen again, with some factions debating whether the notion of a separate south, or a referendum on the issue sometime in the future, should again be on the agenda.

Various political groups from the once-independent south are trying to find a common position, having met for talks in Cairo in October.

Secession has long held an attraction for the south, which was united - in some parts reluctantly - with the north in 1990. The south has more land, fewer people, better education levels and more natural resources. Culturally, the two parts of Yemen are also different; the north is closer to Saudi Arabia, while the south has closer links with other countries through trade. Southerners argue they have been disenfranchised and kept out of major political positions since Mr Saleh, a northerner, came to power.

Some of that is true. But the legacy of Mr Saleh has not been to entrench the power of the north, but to entrench the power of his supporters.

Unlike the 1990s civil war, this uprising is not of the north-south variety. The thousands on the streets and in Sanaa's Tahrir Square show that this is a popular movement of young people that unites Yemenis.

As two days of a remarkable diary from Sanaa by this newspaper's correspondent Mohammed Al Qadhi have shown, the capital is a city under siege, with residents unable to enjoy anything like a semblance of normal life.

The message of Ms Karman, who gained such prominence after winning the Nobel Peace Prize last month, is that all of Yemen is suffering, under the gaze of the international community. Ms Karman has shown herself to be a thoughtful and insightful leader. A southerner, she has risen above the fray of local - and even national politics - to call for a genuinely inclusive, just solution.

The talk in Taiz of secession is premature. The Yemeni revolution does not belong to one city or one region; it is being fought by and on behalf of all of Yemen's people.

In recent months, Mr Saleh and his supporters have attempted to fracture the opposition, hoping to find a way through that allows them to retain power. The south must resist this attempt. Mr Saleh has spent too long trying to play his people against each other for them to split now.

The temptation in Taiz and the south will be to wage their own battle for independence. But what Yemen needs now, more than ever, is unity. Whether there is a federal system, or independence, or continued unity is a question for a post-Saleh era. But for Yemen, the Saleh era has not yet passed.

Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai