Friday, October 7, 2011

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Tawakkul Karman Profile: 'The Mother Of Yemen's Revolution'


SANAA, Yemen — She is known among Yemenis as "the iron woman" and the "mother of the revolution." A conservative woman fighting for change in a conservative Muslim and tribal society, Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman has been the face of the mass uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The 32-year-old Karman has been an activist for human rights in Yemen for years, but when she was arrested in January, it helped detonate protests by hundreds of thousands demanding the ouster of Saleh and the creation of a democratic government.

When the Nobel announcement was made Friday, Karman was where she has been nearly every day for the past eight months: in a protest tent in Change Square, the roundabout in central Sanaa that has been the symbolic epicenter of the revolt.

"This prize is not for Tawakkul, it is for the whole Yemeni people, for the martyrs, for the cause of standing up to (Saleh) and his gangs. Every tyrant and dictator is upset by this prize because it confronts injustice," she told The Associated Press from her tent as she received congratulations from other activists.

Karman – who shares the prize with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee – is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. With the award, the Nobel committee gave a nod to the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings that have swept the Middle East, forcing out the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

In Yemen, millions have been turning out for protests in the capital Sanaa and cities around the country since late January. Still, Saleh has determinedly refused to step down.

Karman and the other young activists who have led Yemen's uprising have created a movement that is unique in this impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where tribal allegiances run deep, much of the public is religiously conservative and weapons are rife, with guns in nearly every home.

Like the majority of Yemeni women, Karman once wore the niqab, the conservative Muslim garb that covers the face with a veil and hides the body in heavy robes, leaving only the eyes visible. But last year, she changed to a more moderate headscarf, covering just her hair – she told AP she wanted to be "face to face with my activist colleagues."

She is also a member of Yemen's opposition Islamic fundamentalist Islah Party, but her participation in the protests brought sharp criticism from conservatives in the party, some of whom denounced her in mosque sermons. Saleh's regime itself tried to discredit her by spreading a photo of her sitting in a protest tent with a male colleague – with others around them cut out from the picture – seeking to taint her as sinful for being alone with a man.

Women have participated heavily in the protests. The organizers have intentionally sought to cut across tribal lines. And they have resolutely remained peaceful, even as Yemen seems to explode around them. Saleh's security forces have repeatedly opened fire on protesters. Sanaa and other cities have turned into war zones as regime forces battle with dissident military units and tribal fighters opposed to Saleh.

Regime snipers shot at protesters in Change Square on Friday, killing one and wounding four others, according to a security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. Government forces also bombarded Sanaa's Hassaba district, a center for anti-government tribesmen, and fired on the home of the tribesmen's leader, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, one of Saleh's top rivals.

"Neither Ali nor his gangs will drag Yemen toward war and infighting," Karman told the AP. "We chose peace, we could have resorted to violence in this revolution and we could have settled it in days and not months by resorting to our weapons ... But we chose peace and only peace."

"Don't worry about Yemen. Yemen started in peace and it will end its revolution in peace, and it will start its new civil state with peace," she said.

Her husband, Mohammed al-Nahmi, sitting with her in the tent as he received congratulations, told AP, "This is a prize she deserves. Before she is my wife, she is a colleague, and a companion in the struggle."

Thorbjoern Jagland, who heads the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee told AP that including Karman in the prize is "a signal that the Arab Spring cannot be successful without including the women in it."

He also noted Karman's party's links to the Muslim brotherhood, "which in the West is perceived as a threat to democracy." He added, "I don't believe that. There are many signals that that kind of movement can be an important part of the solution."

Saleh's regime gave no immediate comment on Karman's Nobel win. But a lawmaker from his ruling party, Mohammed Bin Naji Shayef, who heads parliament's human rights commission, said the prize reflects "how much Yemeni women have achieved in the country's political life" and "should be celebrated by everyone in Yemen."

Karman, a mother of three, originally hails from the southern city of Taiz, a city known for its prominent middle class and university intellectuals that has long been a hotbed of opposition to Saleh. Her father, Abdul-Salam Karman, was once the legal affairs minister under Saleh, but resigned to protest government corruption.

Karman had organized protests and sit-ins as early as 2007, referring to her regular gatherings outside government offices in Sanaa as the "Freedom square." She campaigned for greater rights for women and an end to harassment of journalists, heading Women Journalists without Chains, an organization advocating for press freedoms.

In December 2010, the uprising erupted in Tunisia after a local fruit vendor in the North African nation, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire.

In Yemen, Karman led protests in support of the Tunisians, sending out mobile phont texts to urge people to join. The small protests, comprising no more than 200 people, were broken up with water cannons and batons.

On Jan. 23, authorities arrested Karman.

The move was meant as a warning to her, but it backfired, sending a wave of women protesters into the streets of Sanaa and other cities, a rare sight in Yemen. Karman was released early the next day and by the afternoon she was leading another protest.

She and other organizers were further inspired by Egypt, where protesters seized control of Cairo's central Tahrir Square demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

Days after Mubarak stepped down in February, Yemeni protesters, with Karman and other male protest organizers at the helm, seized a major intersection in the heart of Sanaa, which then came to be known as Change Square. Karman has been part of a council grouping the disparate protest groups and an organization representing the youth of revolution.

Since Feb. 17, the protest camp has remained in place, even as security forces have repeatedly opened fire on it. In a recent wave of fighting between security forces and dissident military forces in the capital last month, more than 150 people were killed, most of them protesters.

In Yemen, throngs rail against president

October 7, 2011

SANAA, Yemen (CNN) -- Massive anti-government protests spread across Yemen on Friday as demonstrators called for the departure of the country's embattled president and his allies.

Activists dubbed the day "the Friday of al-Hamdi," a reference to Ibrahim al-Hamdi, a popular former president of North Yemen who was slain in 1977. North and South Yemen merged into the Republic of Yemen in 1990.

The estimated number of protesters across the country totaled three million, with 800,000 alone in the capital of Sanaa, according to a count of numbers from eyewitnesses. That count could not be verified independently.

People in the south as well as the north hailed al-Hamdi and called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave government.

Yasser al-Nahmi, a youth activist in Sanaa, said al-Hamdi's mission decades ago was to lead Yemen in the right direction.

"Yemen wants a leader like him and not an oppressor like Saleh," he said.

Demonstrators and world powers have called for months for Saleh's departure and a transition of power. The Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional bloc of Gulf Arab nations, hammered out a transition plan months ago, but it hasn't yet been adopted.

Activists want to hold a mock funeral to mourn the failure of the GCC proposal.

Meanwhile, the Joint Meeting parties opposition bloc called for the U.N. Security Council to "take a firm stance for the killing of protesters," said Mohammed Qahtan, JMP spokesman.

Before the demonstrations, government forces cracked down on pro-opposition gunmen, eyewitnesses said.

Gunmen loyal to the Ahmar tribe and Republican Guards in Hasaba district of the capital traded fire. But no casualties were reported, despite the use of mortar shells and other heavy artillery.

In Taiz, government forces moved onto protesters before the demonstration there. Residents reported more shelling and more destruction of private property and businesses near that city's Liberty Square, in what is an recent increase of violence amid an intensified government crackdown.

Nobel prize "victory for Arab Spring," Yemen winner

SANAA (Reuters)- Oct 7, 2011- Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakul Karman said on Friday her award was a victory for Yemen and all Arab Spring revolutions and a message that the era of Arab dictatorships was over.

The peace activist, who was detained briefly during protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, told Reuters the peaceful revolution to topple the veteran autocrat would continue.

"This is a victory for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni revolution and all the Arab revolutions," the 32-year-old mother of three said.

Karman shared the prize with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Liberian peace campaigner Leymah Gbowee. She drew praise from a Saudi Islamist preacher, who called her an inspiration to freedom-seekers.

"This is a message that the era of Arab dictatorships is over. This is a message to this regime and all the despotic regimes that no voice can drown out the voice of freedom and dignity," Karman told Reuters.

"This is a victory for the Arab Spring in Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen. Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state."

Karman has been a key figure among the youth activists since they began camping out in an urban space dubbed 'Change Square' in central Sanaa in February demanding the end of Saleh's three-decade family rule.

She has often been the voice of the street activists on Arabic television, giving on-the-ground reports from the square outside Sanaa University, where dozens of activists have been shot dead by government forces.

Yemenis at the square reacted with joy at the news.

"Yemen will go down in history thanks to Tawakul Karman. She deserves the prize. She has kept fighting for the sake of her peoples' freedom," said Abdulbari Taher, a protest leader.

A government official also praised Karman's award, expressing hope it would lead to a resolution of a crisis that has brought Yemen's economy to a halt.

"I'm very happy with the news that she won the Nobel Prize and it's something that all Yemenis can be proud of," Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi said. "I hope this prize will be a step toward rationality."

Saleh, who survived an assassination attempt in June, has repeatedly refused to sign a peace deal arranged by Gulf Arab countries that would see him step down ahead of new elections.

Saleh has for long enjoyed Saudi and U.S. backing as their man to fight al Qaeda militants based in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state of over 23 million.

"This is a confirmation from the world that Yemen is on the brink of a new era, an era of freedom and equality," Karman said. "I dedicate this award to the Yemeni people and the youth of the Arab Spring, and to the Arab world and to every martyr who has died for freedom."

Karman, a member of the Islamist Islah party, is a feisty activist whose global notoriety could provoke ire among religious conservatives.

But Saudi Islamist preacher Mohsen al-Awajy praised her.

"I am proud of her. Conservatives have some reservations and narrow views but they won't make those assumptions about these global achievements," he said.

"I think most Saudis and anybody who is calling for freedom or reform would look at her as a good woman. She should be appreciated."

Yemenis began their uprising after Tunisians stunned Western powers and Arab leaders by bringing down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office in February after three weeks of protests.

But Bahrain's rulers crushed a democracy movement in March, and activists in Syria and Yemen have spent months in deadly conflict with their governments.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in August after months of fighting with a protest movement that transformed into an armed rebellion with backing from NATO.