In Change Square
I visited Change Square in the center of Yemen’s capital Sana’a a few days back to meet with Tawakkol Karman, Nobel Peace Laureate. We met in her tent, a simple space but full of ideas, energy, love of Yemen and a strong desire for change.
The visit reminded me of the camp we used in Bir Zeit University in the West Bank where I studied in the eighties. I was a young student then, like Tawakkol, full of energy, hope and desire for change and for a free Palestine and a democratic state where Muslims, Jews, and Christians can live together with equal rights and as good neighbors. Unfortunately, we are further now from my dream than at any other time. When I left for the U.S. in the late eighties, with a big hug and tears in his eyes, my father said to me, go and never turn back to Palestine; this land will never be safe. Sadly, he was right.
I did come back to the Arab World though, to be part of this historic moment. Like many others I never thought we would see this moment in our life time, this history in the making. I told Tawakkol that it was she, and the millions of other Arab youth, who brought me back to the Arab World. I could not simply watch the events on the TV screen. I want to be part of this change.
Seated on cushions in her tent, Tawakkol and I talked about many things: About the Arab awakening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria. About how to complete the goals of the revolution in Yemen, to build a modern state, based on the rule of law, separation of powers, equal opportunities for all, a strong economy and fighting corruption and nepotism. About how to channel the energy and excitement of the youth into creative works and economic activities. Tawwakol told me many young people come to her with creative ideas to build small businesses but they have no access to credit, or technical help to materialize their great ideas. There is fear that the youth may be demoralized if real change in Yemen does not happen soon enough.
We also talked about the experience of other countries that had similar revolutions, like Indonesia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Georgia and of other Arab countries. Some of these succeeded in producing real change, others did not. We talked at length about the experience of Indonesia, where the old and the new lived together for some time (similar to Yemen’s current political arrangement). Another important similarity with Indonesia at the time of transition from Suharto was that some provinces were fighting for autonomy. I was working in Indonesia at the time and no one believed it would remain as one state. It did, but only through serious reforms in the economy, real decentralization, a serious war on corruption, opening a dialogue between the state and civil society, and many other important reforms. Indonesia now is one of the success stories of East Asia and Tawakkol proposed to study the experience closely as this may have valuable lessons to offer Yemen.
And we talked about how the World Bank can help Yemen now. There will be further discussions, involving civil society widely, as we prepare an Interim Strategy for the transition. We have started the process by working with the government and other development partners to study the social and economic impact of the crisis. This analysis will help identify priorities for Bank engagement. I told Tawwakol, too, that we are committed to do this work transparently, talking not only to government officials, but to civil society, academia, youth groups, and in different regions of the country.
I left the meeting thinking of my own past, of the love and energy I have for my own country, Palestine. Tawakkol and the other youth in Yemen made the revolution, and managed to make history. They love Yemen as much as anyone in government. They deserve to be part of shaping the future of their country as real partners in the national dialogue.