The Agony of Nabeel Rajab

Can the informal leader of Bahrain's revolution keep the movement going despite a government that cracks down with impunity and an indifferent world?

Rajab Feb3 P.jpg

Rajab walks during a February 2 anti-government demonstration in central Manama / Reuters

Nabeel Rajab, the man who comes as close as any to leading Bahrain's revolution, was in a Manama coffee shop last March, holding his drink and casting an amused eye out the window at what appeared to be government-issued security cars lined up at the curb.

"I'm not hiding," he said.

At the time, Rajab, the gregarious, grey-haired president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was one of a trio of prominent activists -- including University of Bahrain professor Dr. Abdul-Jalil al-Singace and the BCHR's founder, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja -- who had become the most revered figures of the then weeks-old revolution.

Now, almost a year later, his two contemporaries have each received lifelong prison sentences, leaving Rajab -- a 47-year-old building contractor by trade -- the de-facto leader of Bahrain's resurgent uprising.

He's kept safe by making himself a celebrity among the Arab Spring's activists, journalists, experts, and rights workers, too well-known for the regime to arrest or worse, as it has with so many others.

"Already I have seen violence from people, which worries me."

Many, including Rajab himself, correlate his freedom to a strong personal relationship with those international figures, many of whom were in Manama for the first months of the island kingdom's Shi'a revolt.

In the last year, he's attended conferences across the Arab world and has traveled to Washington, D.C., to publicize the ongoing violence against what he says are peaceful protests against the monarchy, which is made up of the country's Sunni minority.

"He has deftly used his high media profile and connections with Western diplomats to stay out of prison," says Barak Barfi, a New America Foundation fellow who was on the ground in Manama last March. "Nevertheless, his plight has been much better than that of other regime critics such as Singace, who, lacking Rajab's high-level ties, find themselves imprisoned for long periods of time."

But Rajab hasn't had an easy time, and Bahrain revolution is struggling.

At a rally outside the King's palace in Riffa last March, he stood on a dirt field, providing information and reassurance to protesters and journalists. In buoyant spirits, he marveled at the size of the crowd. At the same rally, fellow activist al-Singace, briefly freed from prison in a government show of goodwill, parted the crowd in his wheelchair, flowers thrown at his feet.

Rajab is the only highly visible Bahraini activist still able to attend those marches, which though largely ignored by international media, have happened most Fridays for the last year, a testament to the stubborn will of the country's activist corps.

Rajab says there is "violence every night" inflicted by security forces on the streets of Bahrain's poorer Shi'a neighborhoods. His claim is backed up by a constant stream of information coming from cyber activists based on those very streets.

The devastation, they say, comes largely from the tear gas grenades that are often shot into houses or overhead into a crowd, as they were that day on the field in Riffa.

"It's like shooting a cannon at someone," Rajab says. "They're supposed to be rolled on the ground. What they're doing on these crowded, small streets is throwing tear gas into people's homes. It's especially complicated if you have asthma or chronic disease."

In the last year, two physical attacks on Rajab, allegedly by government forces, made global headlines. "His good relations with Western governments have not been able to prevent the regime from persistently harassing him," Barfi says.

For a period of months last year, Rajab was forbidden to leave Bahrain.

In his broken English, he says the family home in Bani Jamrah, a hard-hit Shi'a neighborhood in Manama, has become a favored target for police -- and that his wife and two children, all of whom suffer from asthma, breathe tear gas most nights.

"I am one of the people," he said in January, by phone from Tunis. "I have taken a role in the uprising because I believe we need to stand up. It's dangerous and costly, but it's the only thing we feel will bring about change."

"I was not myself ever planning or preparing for it. I'm a normal activist [previously] known by organizations, but in this revolution I realize I've taken a role. People have seen me talking on their behalf. They had a lot of repression -- old women, young children, they support me. I'm happy about that."

The son of a jailed activist messages to tell me that without Rajab, "We might have stopped months ago. Our uprising owes him a [great] deal. We look up to him."

It's been an untraditional rise for Rajab, who grew up middle-class. When he was in high school, police arrested a beloved, outspoken teacher, triggering in Rajab an early interest in human rights. He left the country, earning a bachelor's degree in history at the University of Pune, in India.

The Democracy ReportReturning home, he trained as a contractor before turning his attention to Bahrain's small, familial activist scene. At the BCHR, founded by the jailed al-Khawaja (whose 24-year-old daughter Maryam is in exile in Copenhagen and now serves as Rajab's deputy), he found his voice -- and an ideal platform from which to publicize the plight of Bahrain's long-marginalized Shi'a majority.

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Karen Leigh is a Berlin-based journalist, writing for Time and other publications. She previously covered Africa, India, the Arab Spring, and the 2008 presidential campaigns.

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