Nabeel Rajab: The Eternal Voice of Pearl Square
By: Mariam Abdallah
Published Tuesday, February 14, 2012
One of the leaders of the uprising in Bahrain has been active against the country’s monarchy since a young age. Now he is joined by a new generation of protesters who seek to bring change to the island kingdom.
His slogans against the Bahraini regime used to be daubed on school walls. Thirty years on, the slogans have turned into tweets, documenting the daily pains of the Bahraini people.
The medium may have changed, but the message has not. Nabeel Rajab has dedicated himself to campaigning for his people’s freedom by whatever means. This has given him the largest Twitter following in Bahrain, and the fourth largest in the Arab world.
Born in 1964 to a long-established pro-regime Bahraini family, Rajab began his life of activism at the age of 16. He was expelled from school for his political dissent, despite his academic excellence. He was also active in the student movement at a university in Poona in India, though he avoided joining any single political faction.
Upon returning to Bahrain in 1988, he began campaigning in an organized, albeit clandestine fashion, establishing links with international human rights organizations.
He was one of the co-founders of the Bahrain Society for Human Rights. Originally set up in London, it operated underground in Bahrain until it was legalized in 2001.
In 2002, Rajab helped establish the Bahrain Center for Human Rights along with his colleague and mentor Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, currently in prison on charges of planning to overthrow the regime.
Rajab’s voice rises slightly as he speaks of his determination to secure his friend’s freedom. “Al-Khawaja is part of my education. We worked on issues that nobody was allowed to touch, especially the ruling family’s privileges, sect-based discrimination, and migrant labor rights. I owe it to this person not to let him remain in jail.”
He stresses that opposition in Bahrain cannot be quashed by pressure, repression, and imprisonment because that will only strengthen people’s resolve to peacefully create a rights-based society. “This is what the regime fails to understand.”
Rajab’s work has kept him under scrutiny. His wife and children are constantly threatened, and have lost any sense of security since the February 14 uprising. His elderly mother has lost her hearing and is now almost blind. “Perhaps that is fortunate,” he remarks. “That has spared her a lot of pain. She doesn’t know what is happening. When they fired tear-gas canisters at our house, we told her the noise was coming from a faraway village.”
Rajab became almost synonymous with the Bahraini uprising during the Pearl Roundabout sit-in. He found himself on the front line.
“I did not appear in the media much before February 14” he explains. “But that day forced me into a new position. I didn’t plan it.”
The arrest of many of his fellow human rights activists and lawyers compelled him to come forward, taking the cause of his detained colleagues to the press and media, and talking about the uprising.
Rajab has much to say, and many anecdotes to relate, about events during the uprising, and the repression unleashed by the regime since.
“The authorities went very far to try to stop the revolution. They invited in the armies of other countries to suppress the revolutionaries. Moreover, the region’s complexity and sectarian climate allowed the regime to succeed in portraying it as a sectarian revolt,” he says.
Prior to the Gulf military intervention – abetted by the West’s double standards and its shared interests with the Gulf monarchies – the deployment of “thousands of mercenaries” by the regime had failed to deter the people from demonstrating daily. Rajab is particularly proud of the role played by women. “They went on demonstrations for the first time, which is unprecedented in a conservative country like Bahrain, and insisted on participating in decision-making.”
On a lighter note, he recalls how a taste for dark humor developed among protesters facing the brunt of the crackdown by regime and Gulf forces. Cracking jokes – a skill he inherited form his father – became a way of alleviating suffering, “People were dying, and we were poking fun at government statements.”
Rajab does not adhere to any theory of Gulf exceptionalism. There is a clamor for self-determination throughout the region, he says. But he concedes that the Gulf lags behind the rest of the Arab world politically. “A handful of families continue to run our countries as though they are private businesses.”
Rajab’s activism appears to be perturbing the US government too. The State Department refused to meet him during his latest visit to the US where he received an award from a pro-democracy foundation honoring his courage in fighting for democracy in Bahrain.
Despite the daily threats he faces at home, he refuses to leave Bahrain. “That’s what the state wants,” he says. “All the independent journalists are gone. Some of them were sacked from their jobs and targeted because of their politics. They number more than 60, including a blogger and a founder of a newspaper who were tortured to death.”
Everything in Rajab’s life revolves around the struggle these days. His new-found status as a role model for young revolutionaries prompted him to finally give up smoking at the start of the new year.
A wry smile comes over his face when asked about the choice of Manama as Capital of Arab Culture for 2012: “No country has violated cultural rights as much as Bahrain has,” he remarks. “Historic mosques have been demolished, merely to insult the beliefs of some people. Many have been arrested and tortured. This regime ought to be boycotted at every level, political, economic and cultural.”
Already banned from the local media, Rajab worries about social media being subject to the control of censors in the Gulf states, following Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal’s purchase of a large amount of stock in Twitter. That could undermine the effectiveness or credibility which social media acquired during the course of the Arab uprisings.
Rajab’s demand is for the democratic process to be respected, and for people to be empowered to choose their rulers, even if that means Islamists rising to power. But he does not accept the term “Islamist.”
“There are different Islamist schools of thought in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The societies in revolt today will not never accept extremism. They have experienced oppression, suppression and tyranny, and they will not accept the same in religious guise,” said Rajab.
Rajab’s latest platform for activism is the “Gulf Centre for Human Rights” which opened recently in Beirut. It will issue statements and reports, as well as conduct training in the field of human rights. These are activities which Rajab has devoted his life to in his quest to bring freedom to the Gulf states.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.