Two days after Tawakul Karman was profiled by Isobel Coleman in a piece for the Huffington Post, suspected Yemeni security officials, driving in three pick-ups, swooped in and arrested her as she walked home last night.
Karman had been organizing rallies and protests targeting the government at Sanaa University through e-mails and texts. According to the Daily Telegraph, crowds were as big as 2,500.
While some in the security services are denying that they are the ones who kidnapped Karman, no one is buying their rather shallow denials. Indeed, it doesn't seem as if Yemen has learned much from Tunisia. Instead of tamping down the protests the news of Karman's arrest has only inflamed them that much more. Today there was a sit-in in front of security offices in Sanaa.
In Taizz, a central highlands city, women protested her arrest. (Ar. with pictures) President Salih himself has taken to the podium to address the growing turmoil, (Ar.) stating at a press conference today that the state could not permit what he curiously called "creative chaos." Then, he asked for forgiveness (Ar.) for any "mistakes or shortcomings" he may be guilty of, adding that no one is perfect except for God.
Not surprisingly, Salih is blaming the opposition for the protests - Karman is a member of Islah, Yemen's largest opposition party. He also pointed out that Yemen is not Tunisia.
Indeed it is not, and while the government is a bit rattled - some advisers like Muhammad Abu Lahum, have said that kidnapping Karman is outside of the consitution - and is raising salaries for civil servants. Although one has to ask: if the important thing in Yemen is - as so many including myself believe - jobs, then how will raising the salaries of those with jobs satisfy those with no jobs
Still, I think the real danger for the Yemeni government is if these protests in Sanaa and Taizz somehow meld with southern frustrations and those of the Huthis. There are a lot of differences separating all those groups, but they all have a common opponent: Salih's regime in Sanaa.
How the Obama administration handles this will also tell us a great deal about what it has learned from previous administrations. I don't expect, nor do I think it would be wise, for the US to make a great deal of public statements. But Karman met with Secretary of State Clinton recently, and the US should be doing something behind the scenes. (Unfortunately, the US Ambassador is out of the country at the moment). Still, this is an excellent opportunity for the Obama administration to demonstrate to President Salih that counterterrorism is really only a small part of its Yemen policy, and that the US is truly committed to the longterm survival of the Yemeni state. If nothing is said behind closed doors, then it will be business as usual in US-Yemeni relations. And that isn't good for anyone.