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Yemen

A Voice of Authority in Yemen After Helping Lead the Opposition
By LAURA KASINOF
Published: July 21, 2012
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TAIZ, Yemen — On a recent day, Sheik Hamoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi sat cross-legged on low cushions in the front of his sitting room, bronze-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose, receiving visitors.
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Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Sheik Hamoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi, seen at his home last year, is the ultimate arbiter in Taiz, a major battleground in the uprising.

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A former top rebel leader in Taiz, Mr. Mikhlafi has taken on a new role as the city’s ultimate arbiter. Part judge, part chieftain, part local political don, he is filling the gap left by the absence of effective judicial institutions in the aftermath of Yemen’s civil conflict last year. Men from all over the surrounding region come to him to resolve disputes and crises, or simply to seek advice.

Dozens of men crowded the room, many sitting on the hard stone floor because there were not enough cushions to go around. One tribesman came seeking money for medical treatment for a gunshot wound suffered during the conflict. A wrinkled, elderly man, hardly able to walk, shuffled up to the sheik to ask for guidance.

Wearing a simple white thobe, the typical male dress in the Persian Gulf region, a gray scarf draped over his neck and a pistol in his belt, Mr. Mikhlafi listened attentively and spoke little, but with calm authority.

When a fight broke out between two petitioners over a land dispute, he solemnly raised his hands and said, “Young men, justice is present.”

The state in Yemen was always weak, and even before the conflict last year, local chieftains had a lot of autonomy and power. But Mr. Mikhlafi’s new role is emblematic of how opposition voices that were marginalized under the 33-year authoritarian rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have gained increasing influence as the government in Yemen has grown even weaker since his ouster.

Taiz, Yemen’s cultural capital and commercial center, was a major battleground in the uprising. The fighting raged for months here and was more lethal than that in the capital, Sana. Hundreds of civilians were killed, a toll for which Mr. Mikhlafi’s rebels share responsibility. A Human Rights Watch report in February accused his forces of placing civilians at risk by deploying fighters in densely populated areas, and of using children as armed patrols.

But by spearheading a revolt against a government that many felt oppressed them, he won local hearts and minds.

His status, though, many here say, owes as much to his humility as to his military background and record of political dissent. At 46, with hair flecked with gray and a warm personality, he is a sharp contrast with the ostentatious tribal leaders in Yemen’s north who Yemenis say care more about stuffing their pockets than helping their tribes.

He dresses simply and lives in an unexceptional house with his wife and 12 children, all of whom, unlike their father, speak English well. He has a record of standing up for the average man; a recent cause was campaigning for the government to provide the months of unpaid salaries to soldiers who defected to the opposition during the political uprising in 2011.

“He is very good with the people,” said Abdul-Fetah Gamal, a former deputy minister of education and resident of this ancient city in Yemen’s central mountains.

“If he sees that you are dealing with injustice, then he stands with you. Because of this he has made a lot of problems for himself. He goes with these weak people and receives the blows of the strong people.”

This Robin Hood-like persona, Taiz residents say, is partly why Mr. Mikhlafi is beloved by so many.

“His importance may continue to get bigger and bigger,” said Dr. Sadeq al-Shugaa, a prominent physician who ran the field hospital in Taiz during last year’s antigovernment protests. “Even now I think Hamoud Saeed is personality No. 1 in Taiz. I have many friends working in other districts who call me to see how they can get in touch with Hamoud.”

Born in a small village of unpaved roads, a 45-minute drive from the city of Taiz, Mr. Mikhlafi has never traveled outside the Arab world.

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