Posts Tagged ‘Tawakul Karman’

Dexter Filkins: On the Ground in Yemen

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Tawakkol Karman, who led the protests in Sanaa, is one of the few grass-roots women leaders in the Middle East.
Here’s a Dexter Filkins article on Yemen and his Fresh Air interview on the same topic.

This is a little out of date, but it’s been on my To Do List and since we may be having a “regime change” there, I thought I’d post it.

This article has a number of themes that struck me. The first is how much of a tribal society many of these Middle Eastern states are, which I talked about in my last post.

The other theme is how easily democratic movements can be hijacked by extremist forces.

In his article, Filkins profiles Tawakul Karman, a mother of three who has helped lead the democratic protest movement in Yemen. On his recent trip to Yemen, Filkins visited Karman’s house in Sana, and noted that she had four photos on her mantle: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Hillary Clinton.

One of the stories Filkins tells is how, attending one of the protests that occur regularly on the Karman’s Sanaa University campus, he saw a prominent Yemeni Islamist, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, take the stage. Zindani praised the democratic youth movement’s struggles, but then proceeded to say where he thought would all lead. “The caliphate is coming! The caliphate is coming!” he  cried.

Karman was furious, saying that the protest leaders had a big argument about inviting Zindani, since “this is a youth movement, not a religious one,” but this observation leads him to a problem at the heart of the Arab Spring: 

Tvhe demonstrators who had gathered outside Sanaa University faced a dilemma: on their own, they did not represent the aspirations of Yemen’s twenty-three million people, but, the more the movement grew, the more Islamist it threatened to become. Seventy per cent of Yemenis live in rural areas, and most are deeply religious.

Glenn Beck’s paranoid rantings about Labor movements colluding with Islamist movements aside, the real issue here is how easily these democratic movements can be taken over by extremist elements as they expand from the universities and cities to the countryside. This is going to be an issue throughout the Middle East.

In a recent article in, Fred Kaplan cites a study by political scientists, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder which lays out the conditions for smooth and successful democratization:

These conditions include a literate population, a fairly prosperous and diverse economy, potentially democratic institutions (a functioning judiciary, free press, honest police, etc.), and a state apparatus capable of mediating and administering disputes among competing social and political groups.

This is not good news for Arab democracies in general and it’s even worse news for Yemen, a tribal society that has none of the above. When the Arab Spring protests started I thought that an Egypt-like uprising in Yemen could be the most dangerous for US interests. Not only is Yemen in a strategically critical location, it is also the headquarters of what is considered by many in the intelligence community to be the most dangerous branch of Al Qaeda: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

As much as I want to support the democratic aspirations of people like Tawakul Karman, we need to tread lightly here. The end result of this movement might not only be bad for the United States: it might also be bad for the democratic activists themselves.