In Yemen, A Woman Leads The Call For Revolution

Aug 15, 2011
Originally published on August 15, 2011 10:28 pm

Tawakkol Karman lives in a tent in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

Every day and every night, she sleeps on the ground, eats on the ground, and works on the ground. Her husband and three children visit on the weekends.

"Today is my beautiful day," she says, tickling her 8-year-old son, Ibrahim. "The one day a week I can spend with my family."

Karman's tent is part of a sprawling encampment of tarp and concrete blocks that goes on for a mile down Sanaa's main street. Set up by anti-government protesters, it's known as Change Square.

And Karman is known as the woman behind the revolution.

Of all the Arab countries that have erupted in protest this year, Yemen has been at it the longest. The country is now in its seventh month of turmoil, with no end in sight.

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh was badly wounded by an explosion at his palace mosque in June, and has been recovering in Saudi Arabia ever since.

But he still insists he is the country's ruler, and protesters have resolved to stay in the streets until he and his sons and nephews step down.

For Karman, the need for change became clear years ago. She first worked as a journalist, then began organizing protests.

"We were little, then we become more and more. Sometimes maybe 400, 500, sometimes more than 10,000," she says.

Back then, each protest was about a single issue: the jailing of a journalist, a land grab, a corrupt official.

Authorities in male-dominated Yemeni society thought they could shut Karman up by sending threats to her male friends and relatives. The worst one, she says, came in 2007, when someone told her they would kill her, kidnap her children and throw them from a mountain.

But Karman didn't stop organizing protests. Looking back now, though, she says they did little good.

Everything changed with the uprising in Tunisia and the fall of the first Arab dictator in January.

In Yemen, Karman and a dozen or so students marched toward the Tunisian Embassy. Security forces came after them and tried to take their cameras.

Karman later called a meeting to plan the next protest.

"We must not lose this moment," she told the students. "This is the only solution to save our country."

The next day, the group again marched to the Tunisian Embassy.

For the first time, Karman heard Yemenis utter what has now become the signature phrase of the Arab revolutions — "the people want the fall of the regime."

Karman realized her project was about much more than individual issues.

"We have to start our country from new. We have to own our own country," she says.

The protests spread to cities and towns around Yemen. In Egypt, protesters were assembling in a single square. In Yemen, they gathered in squares, some 20 in all.

Then, on March 18, security forces fired into Sanaa's Change Square, killing dozens and wounding hundreds more. Karman saw friends lying on the ground, shot in the head. Survivors were too dazed to move.

"I couldn't cry. It isn't good for me to cry in front of them," Karman says.

Instead, after helping get people to the hospital, Karman climbed onto the square's main stage and gave a speech.

"All your bullets, all your violence will not stop us. Kill everybody that you want. We will not stop our struggle," she said.

And so the protests in Yemen grew to the hundreds of thousands. Generals, politicians, tribesmen joined Karman's revolution.

Three times, Yemen's president agreed to sign a plan that would ease him out of power. And three times he backed out on his promise.

Since the June bombing and Saleh's departure, gas shortages, electricity outages and more violence have plagued the country. Many Yemenis now say they're growing tired of the revolution. They just want life to be back to normal.

"They said, 'OK why don't they finish the revolution?' They are right. We have to finish it. And we will," Karman says.

But how? Karman says it's not just the revolution that's to blame. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. should push harder for Saleh and his relatives to step down.

"Because Tunisia and Egypt, when they reached this point, all the international society stand with them. They said that their regime has to step down and has to leave now," she says.

But in Yemen, the international community is working to negotiate a solution with Saleh and his relatives. In addition, there is talk of finding a role for the older, more established political parties. Karman says they will do anything they can to secure positions in a new government.

Karman and her supporters have set up their own transitional government, ready to take the place of the president and the Parliament. It's a bold move that so far has not been formally recognized by the international community.

Karman says she has learned her lesson from Tunisia and Egypt. In those countries, the dictators fell fast, and then the hard work began.

In Yemen, she says the hard work is happening now — late into the night, in the squares.

"Yes, I want to go home. But I will not go home immediately after we finish everything. We will not repeat the mistakes that people in Egypt they did, when they leave the squares," she says.

Karman says she will stay in Change Square until democracy is guaranteed for Yemen — even if that takes seven more months, on the ground, in the tent.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I'm Robert Siegel. Yemen is now in its seventh month of protest with no end in sight. The president is still outside the country. He's recovering from serious injuries after an explosion at his palace mosque back in June. But he is still holding on to power. Protesters say they will stay in the streets until the president and his family relinquish power.

Few foreign journalists have been allowed into Yemen since the uprising began. But NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled there, and she sent this profile of an activist known as the woman behind the revolution.

KELLY MCEVERS: Tawakkol Karman lives in a tent. Every day and every night, she's sleeps on the ground, eats on the ground and works on the ground. Her husband and three kids come visit on the weekends.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: Today is my beautiful day, she says, tickling her 8-year-old son, Ibrahim. The one day a week I can spend with my family.

TAWAKKOL KARMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Tawakkol's tent is part of a sprawling encampment of tarp and concrete blocks that goes on for a mile, down a main street of Yemen's capital, Sana'a. They call it Change Square. For Tawakkol, the need for change became clear years ago. She first worked as a journalist, then began organizing protests.

KARMAN: We were little, then we become more and more. Sometimes maybe 400, 500. Sometimes more than 10,000.

MCEVERS: Back then, each protest was about a single issue: the jailing of a journalist, a land grab, a corrupt official. Authorities in this macho society thought they could just shut Tawakkol up by sending threats to her male friends and relatives. The worst one, she says, came in 2007.

KARMAN: They will kill me, and they will kidnap my children, and they throw them from the mountain. Yeah.

MCEVERS: So somebody said those exact words to you: We will kill you.

KARMAN: Yeah. Yes, we will throw all of you from the mountain.

MCEVERS: But Tawakkol didn't stop organizing protests. Looking back now, though, she says they did little good. Then came the uprising in Tunisia and the fall of the first Arab dictator on January 14th. In Yemen, Tawakkol and a dozen or so students marched toward the Tunisian embassy. Security forces came after them and tried to take their cameras. Tawakkol later called a meeting to plan the next protest. She remembers what she told the students.

KARMAN: We must not lose this moment. This is the only solution to save our country.

MCEVERS: The next day, the group again marched to the Tunisian embassy. For the first time, Tawakkol heard Yemenis utter what has now become the signature phrase of the Arab revolutions: (Foreign language spoken) The people want the fall of the regime. Tawakkol realized her project was about much more than individual issues.

KARMAN: We have to step down this regime. We have to start our country from new. And then, we have, you know, to own our own country.

MCEVERS: The protests spread to cities and towns around Yemen. In Egypt, protesters were assembling in a single square. In Yemen, they gathered in squares, some 20 in all. Then, on March 18th, security forces fired into Change Square in Sana'a, killing dozens and wounding hundreds more. Tawakkol saw friends lying on the ground, shot in the head. Survivors were too dazed to move.

KARMAN: To speak honest, I couldn't cry. It isn't good for me to cry in front of them.

MCEVERS: Instead, after helping get people to the hospital, Tawakkol climbed the main stage in the square and gave a speech.

KARMAN: All your bullets, all your violence will not stop us. Kill everybody that you want. We will not stop our struggle.

MCEVERS: And so the protests in Yemen grew to the hundreds of thousands. Generals, politicians, tribesmen all eventually joined Tawakkol's revolution. Three times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to sign a plan that would ease him out of power, and three times he backed out on his promise. In early June, an explosion at his palace mosque left him severely injured. He's now being treated in Saudi Arabia. Since he left, there have been gas shortages, electricity outages and more violence. Many Yemenis now say they're growing tired of the revolution. They just want life to be back to normal.

KARMAN: They said, OK, why don't they finish the revolution? They are right. We have to finish it. And we will.

MCEVERS: But how to finish it? Tawakkol says it's not just the revolution that's to blame. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. should push harder for Saleh and his relatives to step down.

KARMAN: Because Tunisia and Egypt, when they reached to this point, all the international society stand with them. They said that their regime has to step down and has to leave now.

MCEVERS: But in Yemen, the international community is working with Saleh and his relatives to negotiate a solution, as well as with the traditional opposition. The older, more established political parties, Tawakkol says, will do anything they can to secure positions in a new government. So Tawakkol and her supporters have set up their own transitional government, ready to take the place of the president and the parliament. It's a pretty bold move that so far has not been formally recognized by the international community. It doesn't seem realistic that you're just going to start ruling Yemen.

KARMAN: It's realistic. You will see. And I am sure, and you will see.

MCEVERS: Tawakkol says she's learned her lesson from Tunisia and Egypt. In those countries, the dictators fell fast, and then the hard work began. In Yemen, she says the hard work is happening now late into the night, in the squares. You don't want to stay in this tent forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KARMAN: Yes, I want to go home. But I will not go home immediately after we finish everything. We will not repeat the mistakes that people in Egypt, that they did, when they leave the squares. I will stay here until we guarantee Yemen modern and democracy and civil.

MCEVERS: Even, she says, if that takes seven more months on the ground, in the tent. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.