Tawakkol Karman, an MB mouthpiece drawn to the limelight

Karman’s critics assail her for what they say are contradictory and emotion-laden reactions stemming from a particular ideological background.
Thursday 21/05/2020
Mario Ollinteotl Hernández García.
By Mario Ollinteotl Hernández García.

Tawakkol Karman has been described by her opponents as a Yemeni-Turkish activist. She was recently subjected to a wave of attacks after Facebook selected her to be among new oversight board members who will review sensitive content on Facebook and Instagram platforms.

Facebook’s decision has sparked a wave of backlash, including the launch of a protest petition by social media users, due to Karman’s ideological background, history of controversial statements, and reputation for blocking critics and refusing to accept dissenting views.

Karman’s critics assail her for what they say are contradictory and emotion-laden reactions stemming from her ideological background and training as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen.

Karman grew up in an area in Taiz governorate, where many members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen originated. Her home atmosphere must have been dominated by radical ideas and tendencies, as her father Abdel-Salam Karman, was a leading Brotherhood figure and founder of the Yemeni Rally for Reform Party.

Tawakkol began her professional journey in Sana’a as a human rights activist driven by the prison literature and chants created by the Muslim Brothers of Egypt. In 2005, she co-founded her first human rights organisation, called “Women Journalists Without Chains,” which incorporated radical Islamist overtones and slogans inspired by prison chants of jailed jihadist elements of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yemeni Tawakkol Karman speaks in Istanbul in November 2018. (AFP)
Yemeni Tawakkol Karman speaks in Istanbul in November 2018. (AFP)

Karman’s Islamist obsessions have always been coupled with her attraction to the limelight. Her human rights journey began when she championed the cause of the so-called “Ja’ashin displaced persons.” These were a group of people from the Ja’ashin District in Ibb governorate who fled to Sana’a to escape the oppression of an influential tribal sheikh at the time. The Yemeni authorities accused Karman of working under the guise of defending human rights to stir division and stoke demonstrations in order to score political points for her organisation, which was at the time and up to the 2011 protests locked in a vicious conflict with the ruling General People’s Congress Party. With the 2011 protests, Karman found her big breakthrough. According to her critics, she quickly forgot her pet cause of the displaced of Ja’ashin and never came back to it, even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

During the protests of 2011 demanding the overthrow of the Saleh regime, Karman was all over the place, fuelling demonstrations and supporting sit-ins.

She was also accused of inciting non-partisan groups of enthusiastic youth to stage demonstrations in hot contact areas with the security forces, with the aim of bringing down vital power centres in Sana’a such as the prime ministry. It was later alleged that Karman purposely used the deaths and injuries caused by the violent reactions of the security forces to these demonstrations in her media campaign on Al Jazeera to increase international pressure on Saleh’s regime and hasten its fall.

On several occasions, Karman’s radical positions embarrassed leaders of her party, many of whom continued to maintain relations with President Ali Abdallah Saleh. Even Karman’s father, Abdel-Salam Karman, who was a former minister of legal affairs and a member of the Shura Council, had to apologise for his daughter’s behaviour, which he described as “impolite,” in one of the council’s sessions broadcast by Yemeni TV.

It wasn’t just her father who disapproved of her actions; a number of her brothers did too. Her brother Tariq Karman went so far as to ask her to apologise for her role in what he called “the destruction of the homeland.”

As Tawakkol was taking part in yet another protest against the regime in 2011 at University Square in Sana’a, news broke that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, thus becoming the fifth Arab figure and first Arab woman to receive the prestigious award.

Karman was overwhelmed with joy, but many media reports questioned her eligibility for the award. Qatar’s role in supporting her candidacy through a financial donation to the Nobel Committee quickly surfaced.

Activists who signed the protest petition to Facebook insisted that Karman represents neither the Yemeni street nor the Arab street. She is just a front for a bunch of parties and an ideological orientation that are incompatible with the principles of neutrality and transparency required by her new position with Facebook.

They argued that there are hundreds of other Arab public figures who are better suited for the role than Karman. The petition stated that Karman’s selection is a blow to the integrity and reputation of Facebook’s supervisory board, and will certainly drive many users away from the platform.