Acil Tabbara, AFP
Last updated: 19 February, 2012

Yemen Nobel winner urges participation in polls

In a dimly lit tent in Yemen’s Change Square, Nobel peace laureate Tawakkul Karman has laid out a blueprint of her country’s future: a modern state with equality and rule of law.

Karman, a passionate 32-year-old, has toned down her once inflammatory rhetoric, no longer demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh be brought to international justice, and throwing her support behind Vice President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who will replace Saleh after Tuesday’s election.

“We support Hadi’s election for an interim period of two years during which we will build Yemen,” she told AFP in an interview in the Yemeni capital.

Karman said she has urged her fellow activists from Yemen’s protesting “revolutionary youth” to vote for the vice president and engage in the transition period.

Hadi will be the sole candidate in the presidential polls as stipulated by a Gulf-brokered deal which Saleh signed in November after months of mass protests demanding his ouster and international pressure for him to step down.

Resting on cushions and flanked by her eight-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, Karman said Yemenis “will begin to develop laws and legislation that will allow us to establish a modern state” as soon as Hadi takes office.

The first task should be to adopt a law for “transitional justice,” that would emulate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, to shed light on past crimes and ensure “victims receive compensation,” she said.

The next step should focus on “drawing up a new constitution that guarantees equal rights for all citizens, the rule of law… and recognises the principle of power transfer,” she added.

These steps should be completed by the end of the Hadi’s two-year term, Karman insisted.

Asked about the role of women’s rights in the future constitution, Karman, who is also a member of the Islamist Al-Islah (reform) party, said simply: men and women should be equal.

The first Arab woman to win the Nobel peace prize, Karman did not specify what political role she envisions for herself in a future Yemen.

She did however encourage the youth, who have camped for months in Sanaa’s Change Square and who bore the brunt of last year’s brutal crackdown, to create a united body to participate in the upcoming national dialogue.

Karman, a journalist by profession, became the symbol of the youth’s uprising against Saleh’s regime that began on the doorsteps of the University of Sanaa in January 2011.

She stood side by side with the activists as they faced-off against Saleh’s troops and armed loyalists who violently repressed the daily protests.

In February last year, she pitched a tent in Change Square, outside the university, which became the focal point of the youth protest movement demanding Saleh’s ouster.

She still camps there, inviting activists in to discuss the latest political developments and at times, even providing aid to the wounded.

She moved there with her husband and three children after being hounded at home by regime cronies who were threatening her life.

The death threats continue to this day, says Karman as eight-year-old Alia sits drawing, cuddled next to her mother.

“In the last week alone I received two messages on my cell phone… saying that I will pay with my blood if I don’t repent,” she said, adding that one message was from someone claiming to be a member of Al-Qaeda and the other from the Partisans of Sharia, an group linked to the Islamist network.

“I hold the security forces of President Ali Abdullah Saleh responsible for any aggression against me, because his regime has created Al-Qaeda to gain sympathy from the West,” she said.

Saleh’s opponents have also accused the veteran leader of having used Islamist militants as a tool against his opponents, although he has repeatedly declared himself a US ally in its “war on terror.”

Karman, a frail woman with large expressive eyes, seems however undeterred by these threats.

In a conservative country where women rarely play any political role, Karman began campaigning for human rights as early as 2007 when she would hold a weekly protest outside the government offices in Sanaa calling for the release of regime opponents and free speech.

“Some people laughed at me thinking it was crazy,” said Karman. “But I always knew that one day the people will rise up.”

The Nobel Prize Committee awarded the 2011 Peace Prize jointly to Karman as well as Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian “peace warrior” Leymah Gbowee.