Tawakkol Karman is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who leads the group Women Journalists Without Chains.
Six years ago, in January 2011, a peaceful revolution erupted in Yemen. Our popular uprising bore many similarities to those sweeping other Arab countries at the same time, a phenomenon that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Like its counterparts elsewhere, Yemen’s revolution was the inevitable response to a regime that had turned the country into a failed dynastic state ruled by corruption and nepotism.
Yemenis succeeded in toppling the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh and launching a democratic transition. They created a multiparty national unity government that represented a wide range of political forces from across the country. In spite of many difficulties, Yemen’s people experienced significant if modest progress in the observance of basic human rights and civil liberties.
Yemenis of all walks of life enjoyed their freedoms and rights without any limitations. This was perhaps the greatest and most significant achievement of our peaceful revolution. As the revolution proceeded, Yemenis from all over the country participated in a comprehensive national dialogue that reflected the widespread desire for a modern civil state. This dialogue ultimately produced the text of a draft constitution. A national referendum on the new constitution was set to take place within the next few months, to be followed by local and national elections.
That referendum, which would have ushered in a new era of rule of law for Yemen, never took place. On Sept. 21, 2014, militias from the Houthi political movement, allied with troops loyal to the deposed Saleh and supported and financed by Iran, occupied the capital of Sanaa and placed the leader of the transitional government, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and other senior government officials under house arrest. The Houthi-Saleh forces then moved across the country, occupying various towns and cities and taking over local governments. Yemenis who supported the transitional government rose up in opposition. War began.
The Houthi-Saleh coup is responsible for the war and destruction Yemen has seen since. This context is vital to understanding Yemen’s calamity as we work to end this devastating war and achieve a sustainable peace in our country.
The coup immediately undermined the rights and freedoms Yemenis enjoyed during the transitional period, including not least the freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The forces of the counterrevolution have shut down newspapers, satellite channels and radio stations. The coup leaders banned political parties, human rights organizations and civic groups. Thousands have been detained, tortured or killed.
The protests, sit-ins, strikes and other forms of peaceful resistance that characterized the vibrant political life of the transitional period became memories of the past. Oppression, detention and extrajudicial killings became the new norm in militia-ruled Yemen.
Yet despite all these challenges, our peaceful revolution has left behind a powerful legacy. It has sown the seed of revolt and resistance against oppression and injustice. This spirit created by the revolution will never be extinguished, and will one day achieve the aims of which our people dreamed. One day our people will enjoy the freedom, dignity and welfare they deserve in a democratic country that ensures the rule of law, equality and economic prosperity. We refuse to lose hope.
Some will wonder: Is this dream worth all the suffering the Yemeni people have witnessed in the years since?
The answer is yes. Freedom will not be attained without sacrifice. And the dignity to live free certainly deserves the highest price.
We understand that such sacrifices were imposed on us. We did not opt for war. War was imposed on us as a punishment for our desire for freedom and democracy.
When we started our revolution, we understood that freedom is not free, and that some of the peaceful protesters would pay the ultimate price. This was clear to us from the moment we began to call for the ousting of the dictator.
We knew that we would not be welcomed with roses. Yet even as we encountered violence we refused to respond in kind. We were determined to face violence with peace, not with counterviolence.
We wanted democracy for our people. This was the ultimate purpose of our peaceful revolution.
But is it possible for Yemen to enjoy democracy while the deep state of the despotic regime works to thwart it?
There is a way to achieve a sustainable peace in Yemen. First, we must revoke all the actions taken by the coup leaders and restore all pre-coup institutions and systems. We must implement all agreements reached during the National Dialogue, including the holding of a referendum on the draft constitution and subsequent elections. We must affirm the principle that only the state has the right to a monopoly of violence and the possession and use of arms. This entails disarming all militias and armed groups, which should transform themselves into political parties active in political processes such as elections. Violence should no longer be an option for any group or party.
None of this, of course, will be easy. We have seen too clearly how the fear of change has prompted the forces of reaction to conspire against the infectious energy of the Arab Spring. In Syria, Egypt and Yemen, the results have been devastating. Again and again, the meddling of outside powers — most notably Iran — has taken a horrific toll.
At the time of our revolution, we looked to the international community to support beside us in combating despotism. We expected a great deal from this partnership. Alas, our expectations were soon shattered.
Should we fight our battle for freedom and liberation alone — without the support of partners who advocate respect for human rights and international law? The governments of the civilized and democratic world have a moral responsibility to support and aid any revolution pursuing freedom and democracy.
This is not what happened in the wake of the Arab Spring. Instead the world stood by as the dictator Bashar al-Assad unleashed his military machine on those who peacefully protested his regime in Syria. The same countries also stood by as the Egyptian military ruthlessly crushed those who had demonstrated for their freedom on Tahrir Square. Yemenis have been similarly disappointed. The free world left us to face our destiny, indifferent to the atrocities and massacres we have endured.
But despite all the betrayal and suffering, we have a message for the world: We refuse to choose between dictatorship and murderous chaos, between dictatorship and terrorism. We embrace a third choice: freedom and dignity, protected and ensured by a democratic system. We will struggle for this noble cause and accept any burden that comes with it.
Amid the chaos brought by tyrannies, we say to those who have lost hope: Your revolutions are glorious. Your demand for change will be fulfilled. This is what history teaches us. Despite the betrayal, the conspiring, the coups, the counterrevolutions, you will emerge victorious. This is your fate.