She Helped Launch Yemen’s Revolution. 10 Years On, Tawakkol Karman Still Believes Change Is Possible
Nobel Peace Prize-winning Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman was in Boston on Jan. 6, when rioters fired up by President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building in D.C., leaving five people dead. Only a week earlier, she had watched in horror as terrorists launched rockets at Yemen’s Aden airport, killing 28 people just after Yemen’s newly sworn-in government arrived from Riyadh.
“In our country, we revolted against a dictatorship in order to be able to democratically elect a new president. We sacrifice ourselves for democracy,” Karman tells TIME by phone. “Here in the U.S., there is a president who wants to erase democracy.”
Ten years ago, democracy in the Arab world had seemed ascendant. On Jan. 14 2011, Tunisian dictator Zine Ben Ali fled his country for Saudi Arabia after a month of protests against the indignities of joblessness, corruption, and political repression. The following day, in Yemen, Karman gathered with student leaders outside Sana’a University to call for the country’s own “Jasmine Revolution” against autocratic ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Nine months of deadly street protests followed, and Saleh resigned on Nov. 23, 2011, in a deal that saw the Gulf Co-operation Council offer him immunity from prosecution. That year the Nobel Committee awarded Karman the 2011 Peace Prize for her efforts to advance women’s participation in peacebuilding work.
Like most of the young Arab men and women who rose up against dictators in 2011, Yemen’s peaceful protesters were betrayed. In the years that followed Yemenis suffered “a counter-revolution, regional conspiracy, a Saudi-Emirati war, and a coup funded by Iran,” as Karman describes it. Today, the U.N. says Yemen is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley told TIME in December that he expected to see famine conditions there in the next few months.
The situation may yet further deteriorate. On Jan 10, the outgoing Trump Administration designated Yemen’s Houthi rebels a foreign terrorist organization. The move—part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran—comes despite the U.N. and other humanitarian agencies’ warnings it could worsen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and obstruct the delivery of aid in the country.
Ten years after she made her stand, Karman discussed the strength of Yemeni women, the expectations she has for the Biden Administration, and why amid such dire circumstances she believes freedom and democracy will prevail in Yemen. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
On Jan.15, 2011 you launched the Jasmine revolution in Yemen. What are your most distinct memories of that day?
When I heard that Ben Ali fled from Tunisia, I felt an indescribable sense of joy. Since 2006, I had been calling on Yemeni people to demonstrate peacefully against the dictatorship, against terrorism and poverty, and to demand their human rights. I have always believed that change is possible. But unfortunately, most people in my country and in the region didn’t share this belief. The Tunisian Revolution gave me confidence that they would listen, and would share the same dream I had. The night after Ben Ali fled, I called students from Sana’a University, and we published the first statement of the revolution. From that moment, until Yemen’s dictator Ali Saleh’s departure on Nov. 21, our revolution didn’t stop.
Why did women play such a prominent role in Yemen’s uprising? Ten years on have women’s rights advanced or backslid?
Yemeni women led the change in the peaceful revolution, and also in the transitional period. The dictator Ali Saleh—and I believe most of the dictators around the world— knew how women are strong and so wanted women to be marginalized. If dictators want women to participate in public life at all, they just want them to decorate their regimes. But Yemeni women are not as Saleh portrayed. We are very strong. We have a great history of women leaders: the Queen of Sheba, Queen Arwa. Yemen under their rule was the richest country in the region. It’s not in the blood or the soul of Yemeni women to play the traditional roles Saleh wanted for us.
So, when the opportunity came, you saw many women on the front line. We women did great work leading the national dialogue. But then because of the counter-revolution— the chaos and war that was waged by Saudi, the UAE, and also by the Iran-backed Houthi militia—women, children, and Yemeni people, in general, became victims. Women are the first victims of such conditions, but they are the ones who led and are still leading change.
In May 2020 you started working at Facebook’s oversight board. Since then, I’ve heard you’ve been subject to an online smear campaign. What’s that been like?
I faced a huge campaign of bullying and shaming from the dictatorship regimes’ media outlets. They think that their campaigns will stop or defame me, but they do the opposite. They make me strong, and they strengthen my belief that I am on the right side of history. Of course, there are also lots of threats from Saudi Arabia’s “electronic flies” [Twitter bots and trolls.] But I have known I would have to pay a high price ever since I chose my path. I promised myself, my kids, and my country that the only thing I should fear is not being able to achieve freedom and democracy. Like all other great courageous people—men and women in Yemen and in the region—I am ready to pay the price for freedom and democracy.
Saudi’s military intervention in Yemen began under President Obama. Do you have hopes that the Biden Administration will change course?
Yes, I have very big hopes for the Biden Administration. The most important thing is that they made promises that they would not be blind to human rights violations in the region, and they would put great effort into stopping the war in Yemen. I believe that Biden will put pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop the war, and also stop selling weapons to Saudi and the Emirates. Encouraging [Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman and [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi] Mohammed bin Zayed to continue their crimes in Yemen is against America’s national interest, and totally against global peace. I think the Biden administration will not make the same mistakes as the Trump Administration or even the Obama Administration.
The outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has just designated the Houthis a foreign terrorist organization. Is that a mistake?
I do not trust Trump and the decisions of his administration, despite the fact that the Houthis, and behind them Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, and their militias, are practicing widespread and systematic destruction against Yemen. Any efforts that are not directed to pressure them together to stop their destruction of Yemen will not lead to a peace industry. Therefore, I call on the next US administration to exercise these efforts, any policy that makes less likely a speedy and peaceful end to the war in Yemen hurts more than helps. The highest priority must be finding a peaceful resolution that ends the suffering & holds all sides accountable.
As someone who has struggled for years against anti-democratic forces, how did it feel to see Trump supporters rampage through the Capitol last week?
What is happening in the U.S. is like a coup attempt—it’s very sad. In our country, we revolted against a dictatorship in order to be able to democratically elect a new president. We sacrifice ourselves for democracy. Here in the U.S., there is a president who wants to erase democracy. I hope that Congress will impeach Trump and that he will stand trial when he leaves office and be punished. If the attack against Congress goes unpunished that will encourage others to believe they can attack American institutions. Worse, it will encourage dictators to think democracy no longer has any safeguards. Trump needs to be held accountable: not only for America but for the world.
Yemen is in the grips of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and the war is ongoing. Where do you find hope in such abject circumstances?
I believe in the Yemeni people. I believe in their strength and solidarity. Unfortunately, Yemeni people suffer from the fake victory of the counter-revolution, and the silence of the international community that allied with the leaders of the counter-revolution. Still, I know that the people always win the battle. We are now at the tenth anniversary of the revolution and people in Arab Spring countries haven’t given up hope for freedom and democracy. Saudi didn’t win in Yemen. The Emirates didn’t win in Yemen. Iran and the Houthis didn’t win in Yemen. They are all afraid of the will and determination of the people. Look at history: every great revolution was followed by a counter-revolution but once the wheel of change is set in motion it doesn’t stop until it reaches its destination. Ten years is a small amount of time in our region, but in those ten years, we toppled more than seven dictators. We have done great work and we will continue our work to create a great change in our region.
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