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A Nobel Prize for the Yemeni People

Yemeni human rights activist Tawakkul Karman was announced last night as one of the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.  For once, the Nobel committee really got it right.  Karman has been a tireless, creative and effective advocate for human rights, media freedoms, and democracy in Yemen for years.  And Yemen's struggle for change has been largely forgotten by the world in spite of its almost unbelievable resilience in the face of dim prospects for success.  She represents the very best of the new Arab public.  Now let us hope that the award sparks the international community to refocus on Yemen's forgotten revolution and push hard for the political transition which it so desperately needs and deserves.

My money for the Nobel Peace Prize had been on Egypt's Wael Ghoneim, who had been the administrator of the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page which had helped to crystallize widespread rage over police abuse and unaccountable state bureaucracy.  Ghoneim would have been a good choice.  He has perhaps fallen out of favor with the current flavors of Egyptian revolutionaries. But the Khaled Said page helped to pioneer creative forms of protest, brought fundamental issues of political discontent to a much wider circle of ordinary Egyptians, and served as a vital public forum for debate, argument, and online community building.   He would have been the best choice to honor the Egyptian revolution. 

If it hadn't been Ghoneim, I had been hoping for one of three alternatives.  First, Sami Ben Gharbia (@ifikra) as a leading figure in both the online Tunisian community which helped to spark the first great Arab uprising and the phenomenal Global Voices Online collective which has for a decade been bridging international blogospheres.   Second, someone from Bahrain -- a variety of candidates come to mind -- to draw attention to one of the truly tragic and horrific episodes in the Arab uprising which the world has chosen to ignore.  And the third was Tawakkul Karman.

Karman is an exceptional woman, who has been part of one of the most amazing and impressive of all the Arab uprisings.  While some in Yemen resent her international celebrity, she is not a creation of the international media. She has been campaigning fearlessly for human rights, women's rights and media freedoms for many years, at great personal risk and against long odds. She has been involved with youth protests and weekly demonstrations for years, just like so many of the activist youth around the Arab world who finally broke through in 2011. And her work in Yemen demonstrates how deeply intertwined the different national struggles across the Arab world have been:  as she said a few days after Mubarak's fall,  "Look at Egypt.  We will win."  So does the overjoyed response to her award across Arab internet communities, who clearly recognize her victory as their own.  Her response to the award says it all:

"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. 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 also been involved for years with Islah, the Yemeni opposition party which includes the Muslim Brotherhood.  This should be taken as an important reminder of how religious and secular activists have joined together in this year's great Arab uprising. Her Islamist background has not prevented her from being an organic part of a democratic uprising, and -- as we have seen with so many young Muslim Brotherhood activists in Egypt and around the region -- her participation in a widely based struggle against an autocratic regime has changed her own ideas.  Her decision a few years ago to remove her niqab (full face covering) will likely be widely cited in coming days as an example of her evolution, and will likely be misunderstood -- she was certainly not abandoning or repudiating Islam, but rather moving within an ongoing and ever changing Yemeni and Arab Muslim society.  Her Nobel Peace Prize could become a landmark in the vital effort to prevent a "clash of civilizations" -- proving to politically engaged young Islamists that they can be accepted as full equals in Western international society and showing many in the West that such Islamists can be passionate advocates of shared values such as democracy and human rights. 

Tawakkul Karman's Nobel Prize creates an opportunity for the world to refocus on the urgent need to push for a meaningful political transition in Yemen.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, the failure to find a way to transfer power and move towards a democratic Yemen has brought the country to the brink of real civil war and collapse.  The Yemeni protest movement has maintained an almost unbelievable level of mobilization and enthusiasm, but has been unable to break through the stalemated political process.  They are increasingly trapped between armed camps. Solutions which might have been possible months ago, if the internaitonal community had pushed forcefully, now seem less plausible.  Some form of immunity for Saleh and his men after they leave power had been a key part of the GCC's transition proposal, but this will be much harder for Yemenis to accept after the recent massacres (and, frankly, there should not be impunity for such atrocities). 

Since returning to Yemen, Saleh has made it clear that he has no intention of leaving, and all signs are that he is willing to drive Yemen over the cliff into hell to save himself.  Nothing has seemed to be able to divert him from that tragic path.  It doesn't seem likely, but let us hope that the Nobel Peace Prize for Tawakkul Karman can galvanize international attention and push the world to finally act forcefully to bring about the desperately needed political transition.  Could Yemen be the place where a Nobel Peace Prize actually helps bring about peace? 

MICHELLE SHEPHARD/ TORONTO STAR. Via Facebook.

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