The Queen Mother Of The Arab Spring

Tawakkul Karman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in the Yemeni uprising that toppled President Saleh after 33 years in power. But this global face of the Arab Spring still has plenty of work to do in her native land.

Charlotte Bozonnet

DOHA – She smiles and kindly obliges. In Qatar's capital Doha, where she just spoke at the US-Islamic World Forum organized by the Brookings Institution, Tawakkul Karman is greeted like a star. People rush to congratulate the "mother of the revolution," as the Yemenites nicknamed her, or to take a picture with her. "I was a journalist in 1979 in Yemen," says a man as he introduces himself. "That's the year I was born," answers the young Nobel laureate.

Eight months have passed since the day a BBC journalist called Karman to tell her she was co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. She was under her tent on "Change Square" in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. The young revolutionary member of the Islamist Al Islah party and emblem of the opposition to president Ali Abdallah Saleh couldn't believe it.

Since then, 33-year-old Karman has shouldered the role of a Nobel laureate and traveled all over the globe to defend the "Arab spring." "I have four children, three real ones and the revolution is the fourth," she jokes as she shows a picture of her 14-year-old daughter on her mobile phone.

In Qatar, she came to speak about how "proud" she is of this youth that, from Yemen to Tunisia, is toppling dictators. With each international tour, her message is the following: the revolution isn't a process to be afraid about. "We will build modern democratic States," she assures. Lately, she has been talking mostly about Syria, calling for harsher sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad's regime.

An ambitious activist

Don't be fooled by her child-like figure and gentle demeanor. Tawakkul Karman is ambitious, tenacious, and she knows where she is going. She was born on February 7, 1979 in the Mekhlaf district, southwest Yemen. Her father was a politician and a judge who stepped down as minister in 1994 to protest against corruption, and she says she learned a lot from him. In her youth she challenged anything that "wasn't logical," and read a lot during her political science studies at the university of Sanaa.

She took the plunge in 1999-2000, when she became a journalist and published articles criticizing corruption and president Saleh. In 2005, she co-founded the "Women Journalists Without Chains' association, one of her greatest prides. "We defended a free press, human rights and women's rights," she says. At the same time, she decided to stop wearing the niqab, the veil that only leaves the eyes uncovered. "Some were shocked, but it wasn't difficult for me," she says today, her head covered by a simple, colorful, scarf. Even if she defends the right for each woman to decide whether or not to wear the niqab, she has no regrets about her own decision: "I knew that I wouldn't be able to achieve my goals if I kept wearing it. It was like a wall erected between me and the others."

In 2007, with other activists, she started organizing weekly demonstrations on University Square --soon-to-be renamed "Change Square"-- demanding reforms. "After the Tunisian revolution in January 2011, our demands for freedom transformed: we wanted regime change."

President Saleh was ousted in January after 33 years in power. Out of all her years of struggle, Karman will never forget the fatwas issued by conservatives against women who dared go out and demonstrate. She was arrested on January 23, 2011, but quickly released under pressure from the street.

Challenges remain for Yemen

The young woman is a symbol of the revolution and she is intent on making her voice heard in the current transition. Blessed with an undeniable political instinct, she decided after the barricades to compromise, calling to support Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, Saleh's former vice-president who was elected president in February.

Rid of its dictator, Yemen still has to deal with the separatist demands of the North and of the South, and the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula. The main challenge, she says, is to obtain the departure of the fallen president's close associates who are still in key positions in the security forces and the army. "They are supporting al-Qaeda and other armed groups, giving them weapons to destabilize the transition period. She is calling for the international community to "freeze their assets and to take sanctions." The Nobel laureate is also opposed to the American drone strikes in southern Yemen, "which are killing women and children, not Al Qaeda fighters." After this transition period, which she says will last two years, will come the time for elections and a new Constitution.

Tawakkul Karman is respected for her courage and her role in raising awareness about the Yemenite uprising. But she is also controversial. During the revolution, some accused her of pushing the youth to clash with the regime. Others accused her of going it alone. Controversy also surrounds her cautious silence about the fact that she is a member of Al Islah, an Islamist party that spans from the Muslim Brotherhood to the more fundamentalist Salafists. "Today I am Tawakul Karman, Nobel Peace laureate, and I am a member of all parties," she says.

After this revolution, for which they fought and some died, women and young people can't be prevented from playing a role in the transition, insists the Yemenite. Is she thinking about creating her own party? "We are thinking about it," she admits. "Not just me, Tawakkul, but young people. We need new forces: with new parties or a rejuvenation of existing movements." One could even let themselves imagine, maybe no more than ten years from now, a woman candidate for president of Yemen.

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Frank Plitt

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!