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A rare idealist in Yemen's hinterlands

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In a part of Yemen where power often seems derived from guns, money, and pedigree, Nasser Muhtam is a rare idealist. Though a scion of a prominent local family – and thus part of a class often dismissed as self-interested keepers of the status quo – he has devoted himself to fighting for change, working to lay the groundwork for a civil society in one of the least developed areas of Yemen.

Mr. Muhtam is blunt when it comes to the problems facing Mareb. In most of the province, the government’s presence is nearly absent. The pervasive lack of security and development, he says, has effectively left governance in the hands of local tribal leaders, while groups ranging from Al Qaeda-affiliated militants to hashish dealers have taken advantage of the power vacuum.

As an attempt to help address such societal problems in an area largely beyond the reach of the central government, he founded the Mareb Generations for Development Organization in 2007.

Its headquarters' unassuming exterior may blend in with the cinderblock structures that dot the sweltering provincial capital, but inside the buzz of activity within the organization’s headquarters shows what the tenacious tribesman has been able to build. Youth activists move between offices, while photographic mementos of initiatives ranging from price-monitoring campaigns to charity projects coat the walls.

It’s a rare oasis of peace in the troubled province, but Muhtam admits that the world outside its walls is impossible to ignore. Family members often call on him to aid in resolving tribal disputes, while the general lack of security essentially requires him to carry a weapon when he leaves the center of the provincial capital.

“It’s an internal conflict,” he notes hesitantly. “I’ll leave my gun in storage for a month, for two months, but with the situation, it’s sometimes necessary.”

The tense political and security situation in Yemen, which is still looking for its footing after the 2011 Arab upheaval ended the 33-year rule of a president who often seemed to value his government's stability over the stability of the nation as a whole, may have forced Muhtam into a reluctant pragmatism. But he stresses his hopes for a better future for his homeland.

“My dreams are like anyone’s dreams,” he says. “Comprehensive development, people living in safety and security, with peace and dignity."


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