It was a scorching day in late January in Change Square, the focal point of the revolution underway in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. As Tawakkol Karman, flanked by two female protesters, made her way through the crowd, there were cheers. She stepped onto the raised stage — a lone woman amid an island of men — and flashed a smile. The cheers grew louder.
That was the first time I saw Karman, Yemen’s most prominent pro-democracy campaigner, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, also from Liberia.
Later that January day, I visited Tawakkol at her house. She was still wearing her trademark floral head scarf — itself a symbol of defiance in a conservative country where most women are covered from head to toe in black abayas. She had her laptop open to her Facebook page, a potent weapon in her struggle to end President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule.On a table in the living room were framed photos of her idols: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
Yemen’s revolution was only a couple of weeks old, but Tawakkol seemed confident that the momentum on the streets would grow. She told me that what was happening in Yemen was “a historic opportunity that must be exploited.”
A few days later, I watched her walk with a few hundred other protesters toward the Egyptian Embassy, to show solidarity with the protesters in Cairo. A mob of pro-government loyalists attacked her with stones and knives. Her husband and other friends surrounded her and protected her.
Since that day, I have often talked to her on the phone when I was outside Yemen to gauge the direction of the revolution. She always began our conversation with, “Hello, my dear. Are you in Yemen?” Even in her broken English, she managed to effectively communicate the demands of the revolution. Her words were always imbued with a sense of confidence, of purpose, of certainty that the uprising would succeed.
I saw Tawakkol in person again in June in Change Square. By then, the square had mushroomed to a camp of tents, where thousands of activists lived round the clock. Tawakkol, too, had erected her own blue-colored tent. She was a leader who led by example. That day, I had never seen her so furious. She lashed out at Yemen’s traditional political opposition for negotiating with Saleh. She also demanded that Saleh face trial for crimes against protesters committed by his security forces.
Some activist leaders I spoke with voiced resentment about Tawakkol and her stature. It was clear she had become a contentious figure, but she still remained central to the revolution.
On the phone yesterday, I asked Tawakkol how she felt to be in the same company as her idols: Both Mandela and Dr. King won Nobel Peace Prizes — and the lack of a prize for Gandhi is widely considered the greatest omission by the Nobel committee in its 110-year history.
There was a pause on the phone. She said with audible awe that she wanted to visit Mandela, to thank him for inspiring her. She also hoped to visit Dr. King’s grave one day to commemorate his memory and his influence.
Then she returned to the subject of the revolution. She said she hoped the United States and the rest of the international community would increase pressure on Saleh to step down and face trial. It was clear that she had no intention of leaving her tent until the regime falls.