Tawakkol Karman: A Beacon of Peace and Hope for Yemen


President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is back with a vengeance.

After spending three months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, he is back in Sana’a and his forces are shooting unarmed protestors. The U.S. government and many others tried to pressure him in vain. The stubbornness of Saleh was compounded by the support he is receiving from Saudi Arabia and by the fact that Al-Qaeda is at the door. Today, Western governments stand before an impasse. Should they prioritize democracy despite all the risks or succumb to short term considerations?     

In spite of the seemingly desperate situation, a new hope emerged, surprisingly, from Oslo, Norway. Tawakkol Karman, a 32-year-old Yemeni journalist was awarded the Nobel peace prize on Oct. 7. This development was yet another acknowledgement of the Arab Spring and the fight for democracy, freedom, and human rights. By the beginning of this year, Karman became an iconic figure for many in the Middle East and a female leader in a revolution mainly led by men. She was not a theorist of freedom and democracy. She worked on the ground to improve the rights of Yemeni women and to expand the space of freedom in her country. She created the organization Women Journalists without Chains and was subjected to moral and physical harassment including being kidnapped by the Yemeni secret police.

The success of Karman to peacefully mobilize the Yemeni youth against their dictatorship provides a resounding answer to the question I raised above. The U.S. need not to be afraid of the changes in the Middle East, and the best approach to counter Al-Qaeda is to help the alternative progressive ideas take root. Moreover, what is needed today is a transitional council that progressively opens the road for democracy and free elections. The worst possible outcome would be a return to the status quo with a dictator in power and a myriad of military, and possibly terrorist, organizations fighting him.

“I call on the United States and the European Union to tell Saleh that he must leave now, in response to the demands of his people,” Karman said. “They should end all support for his regime, especially that which is used to crush peaceful opposition.”

So far, these demands have fallen on deaf ears and the U.S. seems to be too indulgent and unable to pressurize the Yemeni regime. The apprehension of the U.S. can be understood. The fear of a vacuum that allows extremists like Anwar al-Awlaki to come to power and the fear of upsetting Yemen’s influential, petrol exporting neighbor, Saudi Arabia have been the two major reasons so far. 

In a previous interview delivered to the Arabic-speaking Al-Arabia TV, Karman also expressed her fear from the arrival of extremists to power. She said that such a risk is always possible but it is not a good reason to discourage people from asking for democracy and freedom. If such beliefs were held too close to one’s heart, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt would not have been possible. Karman, like many Arabs, expressed her legitimate hopes and fears.

Today, Karman is the Nobel laureate for peace, but the revolution she helped start has yet to bear its fruits, and the question I asked is still open for answers. Is the Yemeni regime worth defending for security reasons and for the sake of petrol monarchs? Isn’t it better for the U.S. to help a peaceful transmission of power to progressives like Karman? Wouldn’t long term security for all parties be the ultimate outcome of democratization? 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons