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.

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.

On January 6, he was beatien by government security forces, briefly thrusting Bahrain's conflict back into the global media.

It happened while he was marching in a protest in Manama. Riot police, he says, beat him with batons before realizing who he was. At that point, he explains, they stopped and attempted to make amends by calling him an ambulance.

"We had a very large peaceful protest, which they asked me to cancel," he recalls. "And then they attacked us. A group of riot police beat me and attacked me with their batons, and then they realized who I was and that they had made a big mistake, that this guy has a very big relationship with the international community."

The same police then "brought an ambulance for me and tried to help, but they claimed they first saw me lying down in the street, and not that they had beaten me."

On Sunday, Rajab and Zainab al-Khawaja (activist Abdulhadi's older daughter) marched on the former Pearl site, along with thousands of other Bahrainis, where al-Khawaja was arrested. Rajab and his family were tear gassed, his daughter choking and his son beaten by riot police. Much larger demonstrations are expected on Tuesday.

Rajab's credibility with the press is due in part to his affiliations. He currently serves as an advisor to Human Rights Watch, which works to publicize the ongoing crisis, and is the deputy secretary general of the Paris-based watchdog International Federation for Human Rights.

Last year, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars awarded him its 2011 Ion Ratiu Democracy prize. Forbes also named Rajab number 43 on its list of the 100 most influential Arabs on Twitter. He has over 100,000 followers and tweets mostly in Arabic.

Many Bahrainis follow his example of peaceful protest and cyber activism. Fearing a media blackout, they bombard foreign rights workers and journalists with Tweets and emails about the violence they say is being perpetrated almost daily in Shi'a neighborhoods like Sitra, the country's hotbed of revolution, and to protesters serving what they say are unjust sentences.

The jailed activist's son had also messaged me about his brother, imprisoned like their father: "my brother has been separated jail and is being tortured, this is all today! We have not much information, I got to know such cuz one of his mates inside was able to sneak a short call to me and told me of his condition he used the words 'it's bad and dangerous.'"

"We don't get as much coverage as Syria or Libya, but with our limited resources we have done our best," Rajab says.

Bahrainis are some of the most active Arab protesters on social media. In a sense, they provide much of their own coverage.

"The global media has ignored Bahrain," he says. "I understand that, and I don't expect the American media to talk about a revolution when no one [in] the American government is talking about Bahrain. The same with the British and Europeans. Because of that, we were marginalized in the media."

Though some have managed to get into the country, as a rule the government "hasn't allowed media or human rights foundations in since the end of November and now they're saying no one's coming back until the end of February," says Richard Sollom, lead investigator at Washington-based Physicians for Human Rights, who has spent time in Bahrain looking into medical workers jailed or missing after treating injured Shi'a protesters.

The last time Sollom attempted to visit Bahrain, in January, he was turned back at the Manama airport. He has been invited to return in March -- after Febuary 14, the anniversary of the start of protests last year, on which larger clashes are expected.

The lack of international scrutiny on Bahrain means "real, precise data doesn't exist," Sollom explains. "The government has done a pretty good job of whitewashing this whole thing. Actions are so different than words. If you look at the forest and not at the trees, you think, 'oh, Bahrain must be okay.'"

Rajab, the former teenage rabble-rouser, has a great task ahead of him for this anniversary. He must keep the frustrated protesters motivated and marching, but stop them from becoming violent towards riot police. This might give the regime an excuse to escalate its own violence, perhaps catastrophically.

"Already I have seen violence from people, which worries me," he says. "People have been mad at me saying, 'you promote this peaceful method, but police have been using more violence.'"

The protesters will likely try to reach the remains of Pearl Square, once the heart of Bahrain's uprising. Knocked down by the government last year, it was the sight of the government's infamous pre-dawn February 14 shooting of slumbering activists, the revolution's ground zero. "I don't think the end of Pearl is the end of the world," he says now, sounding tired. "They tried to demolish the history, but we'll bring the memories back."