Image: Tawakul Karman
Khaled Abdullah  /  Reuters
Rights activist Tawakul Karman shouts slogans during an anti-government rally outside the Sanaa University on Saturday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 1/23/2011 5:56:07 AM ET 2011-01-23T10:56:07

Yemen has arrested a woman activist who led student protests against the government in the capital last week, a security source said on Sunday.

Inspired by the ousting of Tunisia's president a week ago, Tawakul Karman led two protests at Sanaa University, criticizing autocratic Arab leaders and calling on Yemenis to topple President Ali Abdullah Saleh by using text messages and emails.

Interactive: Tunisia protests, country profile

The source said Karman, a member of the Islamist party Islah, was arrested on Sunday by order of the General Prosecution Office.

Police stopped Karman on her way home early on Sunday and charged her with organizing unlicensed demonstrations without permission, said her husband Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, who was with her.

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"I have no accurate information about her whereabouts," Nehmi told Reuters by phone. "Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don't know."

After Karman's arrest, several hundred students gathered outside Sanaa University, demanding her release.

Karman, who heads the Yemeni activist group Women Journalists Without Chains, has also called on Yemenis to support the Tunisian people.

She was nominated for a U.S. State Department Woman of Courage Award in March, 2010.  Although she did not win, the U.S. Embassy in the capital Sanaa has honored her for her work protesting against "infringements of press freedom and human rights."

Slideshow: Yemen in the spotlight (on this page)

The daughter of a prominent and widely respected former government minister recently told Isobel Coleman, a Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, that she was expecting the worst from the government.

"I know they will shut down my organization if I continue," Coleman quoted Karman in the Huffington Post

"Then they will arrest me. They will also probably kill me in prison. But I won't stop. I am determined," Karman reportedly added.

First of their kind
The recent protests in Yemen appeared to be the first of their kind. The nation's 23 million citizens have many grievances: they are the poorest people in the Arab world, the government is widely seen as corrupt and is reviled for its alliance with the United States in fighting al-Qaida, there are few political freedoms and the country is rapidly running out of water.

More than 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on under $2 a day and almost a third suffer from chronic hunger.

Still, calling for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down had been a red line that few dissenters dared to test.

In a reflection of the tight grip Saleh's government and its forces have in the capital — outside the city, that control thins dramatically — Saturday's demonstration did not take place in the streets, but was confined to the grounds of the University of Sanaa.

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Around 2,500 students, activists and opposition groups gathered there and chanted slogans against the president, comparing him to Tunisia's ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose people were similarly enraged by economic woes and government corruption.

"Get out get out, Ali. Join your friend Ben Ali," the crowds chanted.

One of the organizers, Fouad Dahaba, said the demonstration was only a beginning and they will not stop until their demands are met.

"We will march the streets of Sanaa, to the heart of Sanaa and to the presidential palace. The coming days will witness an escalation," said Dahaba, an Islamist lawmaker and head of the teachers' union.

Making good on that pledge will be difficult. Like other entrenched regimes in the Arab world, Yemen's government shows little tolerance for dissent and the security forces — bolstered by U.S. military aid intended for fighting the country's virulent al-Qaida offshoot — are quick to crack down.

Reuters, The Associated Press and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Above: Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight
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    Slideshow (61) State of emergency in Tunisia - State of emergency
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