Argument

The Optimist’s Case for Yemen

The Optimist’s Case for Yemen

Tawakkol Karman is a firecracker. Her eyes sparkle; her smile is warm and contagious. She wears a vibrant, colorful headscarf. This is a woman burning with intelligence, energy, and idealism. 

In Yemen they call her the "Iron Woman" and the "Mother of the Revolution." When she won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 32 in 2011, she was the youngest person ever to do so. (She was a co-recipient with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee). Karman is only the second Muslim woman to have won the prestigious award. (Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was the first, in 2003.) 

And Tawakkol Karman now finds herself and her work in a very tight spot. 

I’m in Qatar, where I chaired an opening session of the Doha Forum that included the kinetic and inimitable Karman. The mood here hasn’t exactly been cheerful. In one session, a Gulf participant sardonically challenges an E.U. ambassador to explain how Europe can help the people of Syria "when it has no fighters to send." In another, a pro-democracy Egyptian tells the assembled that "Egypt is in deep shit." 

Then there’s Karman’s Yemen. She has become the symbol, and the inspiration, of a country that is more than a little wobbly. Over a cup of tea in a quiet corner of our hotel lobby bar, Karman generously devotes part of her morning trying to peel for me at least a few of the layers. 

Start with very recent history. In 2011 Yemen saw massive protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled Yemen since 1978 (a year longer than Hosni Mubarak reigned in Egypt). Karman played a key role in organizing the protest movement and quickly became the public face of the anti-regime demonstrations. 

Karman began her career as an activist around 2005. "I learned at home growing up," she tells me, "you don’t wait for solutions, you go out and find them." As chair of the group Women Journalists Without Chains, she fought routinely to get dissidents out of prison — that is, when the mother of three wasn’t in jail herself. In 2006 Karman started an SMS campaign that reached 200,000 people across the country. "This was most dangerous," she recounts with a note of evident satisfaction, since all texting in the country had, until then, been under the exclusive control of the military. To pull all this off, Karman was assisted by two of her brothers, both programmers. 

Karman’s entirely self-taught English is broken, but clear and colloquial. She’s even picked up the expression "look" to begin sentences where she wants to push a point. When I ask Karman about her penchant for fashionable hijabs, she laughs and responds, "Look, I used to wear the full burqa until 2005 or so!" 

Karman is a journalist, an advocate of human rights (a labor of love shared by her husband), and a visionary. She states repeatedly in interviews that she wants democracy, rule of law, and western-style human rights for Yemen. Is she realistic about the future? As she described her goals for the planet in her Nobel acceptance speech, she asked at one point, "Am I dreaming?" (Imagination seems to run in the family; her brother Tariq is a poet.) 

But there is now at least a mechanism for reform and a concrete path forward for her country. 

When things in Yemen finally came to a head two years ago, then-President Saleh transferred power to his deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi became president in a February 2012 election in which he ran unopposed. Since then, the country has embarked on a process of reconciliation. 

On March 18 Yemen launched its National Dialogue, a consultative process that encompasses more than 500 representatives from across the country. Among their ambitious aims: to amend the constitution; to reconcile groups in armed conflict; to tackle issues of governance; to re-work Yemen’s social contract; and to prepare the country for general elections in 2014. 

One challenge for Yemen is the sheer enormity of the country’s problems, including wide-spread poverty, illiteracy, crime, corruption, internal armed conflict, threat of civil war, and a growing al Qaeda presence. 

Another is that the National Dialogue is revealing just how deep the country’s social and political fissures are. Most representatives from the southern separatist movement have refused to participate; two more withdrew earlier this month. Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, having fallen out with President Hadi, declined to join as well. Also absent is the influential tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar as well as — calamitously, one might think — the most famous Yemeni of them all, Karman herself. 

Karman protests that too many culprits from the former regime are involved in the National Dialogue. She also laments the lack of women, young people, and civil society leaders around the table. Nevertheless, she’s not at all pessimistic. She thinks the National Dialogue can succeed. I push her to explain her near pathological optimism for her country’s future, the work of the National Dialogue included. Karman keeps reminding me that all progress is relative and that her country has already made truly unimaginable advances in just a few years. She has a point. 

Yet Yemen’s predicament remains delicate. President Saleh once said, in fact, that politics in his country is "like dancing on the heads of snakes." There’s simply no single person, party, or plan that can move things forward smoothly without serious conflict. In truth, Karman’s homeland — she beams with pride and patriotism when speaking of her nation’s history and fellow countrymen — is at real risk of becoming a failed state. 

Facing Yemen’s future requires nothing less than herculean patience and faith. But Steven Spiegel, director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED), argues that the country’s turmoil offers opportunities: "Upheaval can be chaos, but it can also be opportunity for reform and development." Spiegel, who has been faithfully supporting democrats in the region for many years, cannot be dismissed out of hand. A few years ago, after all, no one could have possibly predicted that the country would be where it is now. 

Karman has faith. She says that her heroes are Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (She adds that the American — "Martin," as she affectionately refers to him — is her favorite.) 

Of course, it took Americans decades to end segregation. Do Karman and her allies have the patience? She certainly has the vision.