Today Bogazici University presented me with a unique opportunity to hear Tawakkul Karman speak on the Arab Spring. Ms. Karman was a co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her prominent role in the Yemeni uprising and the Arab Spring as a whole. I hope to share my impressions of her and elaborate on the context/implications of her visit to Turkey. First off, I was very impressed by her demeanor. She is in her early thirties and looks very young but carries herself with strength and speaks with purposeful passion. Her English was a little shaky but the language barrier did not cause her to shy away one bit and she seemed even more eager to communicate her message.
She gave a brief, general talk about the Arab spring using the lofty rhetoric that has come to define the movement. She spoke often of the new generation’s dream of respect and dignity and refusal to succumb to injustice and oppression. She emphasized the sacrifices and sufferings of Arabs across the region, especially the ones who “paid blood”. I was surprised by how much she talked about taking power back to the people, that people should lead and not governments. It reminded me of Lincoln’s line about a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. While she celebrated the successes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, she was quick to note that only the first step had been achieved. Her long term goals are respect for democracy, human rights, and equality before the law.
Tawakkul Karman then moved on to discuss Syria and express her solidarity with the Syrian people who have already “paid blood”. She is confident that they will succeed because they have thrown away their fears and constantly defy the Assad regime. While she praised the West for their at least rhetorical support for the Arab Spring, she criticized the international community for not being serious in their support of the Syrian people. She called on the International community to put more pressure on Assad by freezing his assets and bank accounts. But the purpose of her speech (and probably her visit) was to make a passionate plea for Turkey to support the Syrian uprising. She claimed that Turkey has the biggest responsibility to the Syrian people and that support would also be in their national interest by currying favor around the Arab and Islamic world. She also claimed that Turkey alone could bring success. The international community would not be needed if only Turkey would help. It is important to note that she would not specify what exactly Turkey should do but said she had discussed various options with Prime Minister Erdogan, President Gul, and Foreign Minister Davutoglu.
It was cool to hear her talk of these values and ideals but specifics were notoriously lacking from her speech. Her objective was clearly to persuade/pressure the Turkish government to support the Syrian people but we all wanted more.
Next, there was a question and answer session which turned out to be very interesting. I was impressed by the quality of the questions asked by the Bogazici students especially compared to the TV reporters in attendance. The first student asked her to elaborate on her role in the Yemeni revolution which extracted some interesting details. She talked about the obstacles they faced in Yemen (war in the North, separation movements in the South, al-Qaeda, illiteracy, and poverty) and how there were many skeptical people. But they saw her in the streets protesting alone with men and started to believe. Now Yemenis remain in their tents and their squares until all of their goals are achieved.
Another student asked about whether Arab countries view Turkey as a role model. She answered that they absolutely do. She pointed to Turkey’s democracy, diversity (wasn’t clear what she meant here), and importantly their strong economy. She believes in five years these Arab countries will be strong. The student followed up with a question about how the West will influence the Arab Spring given their past alliances with dictators for economic exploitation (I’ve come across a lot of Turks who think like this). As I mentioned she was complimentary of the West for their stance and urged them and Turkey to do more for the Syrian people.
The next question was basically how Hizbollah could side with the Assad regime. This obviously put her in a tough spot. All she could do was say the she was surprised and ashamed that they chose Assad over the Syrian people and didn’t want to comment further on whether she still supports Hizbollah.
I was slightly confused about this but apparently Turkey granted Tawakkul Karman citizenship even though this was her first visit to the country. But as the students pressed her on controversial issues in Turkey, it became more evident that the AK Party was trying to use her support for political gain. She dodged questions about Turkey’s Kurdish problem and whether she would support a Kurdish uprising. Then, after she had extolled the importance of a free press and women reporters, a professor asked how she reconciled the imprisonment of Turkish journalists and an underdeveloped democracy with Turkey being a role model for the Arab world. To my surprise, the entire lecture hall burst into applause. Again, Karman was in a difficult situation and “claimed” that she had not heard about this but she trusted Erdogan and his government to respect human rights and work to correct these wrongs. Needless to say, most of the Turkish students and professors were not satisfied by this answer.
These last exchanges served as a reminder that even the most idealistic people can get caught up in the murky world of power and politics. In her defense, remaining on good terms with and supporting the Turkish government is a very practical position in accomplishing her most immediate goal of toppling Bashar al-Assad. But I was made even more aware of the discontent and skepticism surrounding Erdogan and the Ak Party. I apologize for the deteriorating quality of my writing. I tried to crank this out during an unusually busy time but I hope you find it interesting.