Nabeel Rajab lives in the town of Bani Jamrah, about half an hour from downtown Manama, Bahrain's capital. In his front yard, a few rabbits huddle in a hutch, eating lettuce. Near the hutch sits a bucket full of tear gas canisters, which Rajab says have been fired at the house by security forces. There are more in his study inside the house, along with mementos people have made for him in prison, including statues of the Pearl Roundabout, carved from soap.
The Pearl Roundabout was the center of protests last February and March in the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain. Rajab, a prominent activist and the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, rejoiced in seeing large numbers of people coming out in pro-democracy demonstrations after the same had happened in countries close by.
“In Tunisia and Egypt, they brought down dictatorships, and that was inspiring to us,” Rajab said. “It was a dream we never thought would come true.”
Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy, the Khalifa family, since 1783. The country is about 70 percent Shia, and many Shia complain of being treated like second-class citizens with little political power or access to jobs. For example, the Shias are almost entirely shut out of the military and security forces.
In March, as the calls for equality in housing and jobs grew stronger, hundreds of troops from Saudi Arabia came rolling across the causeway that connects the two countries to quell the protesters at the request of the Khalifa family. Police officers from the United Arab Emirates joined them.
Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, wrote an editorial in The Washington Times saying that the protest movement was hijacked by extreme elements and the security of Bahrain was threatened. The job of the Gulf Cooperation Council troops was not to suppress the protesters, he wrote, but to protect facilities in Bahrain. Critics, however, charge that the Sunni leaders in Saudi Arabia worried that what was going on in neighboring Bahrain would spur unrest in its own Shia population.
“Bahrain, in important ways, is dependent on decision-making in Riyadh,” said Toby Jones, who teaches modern Middle East history at Rutgers University. “And Saudis won't tolerate the idea of Shia empowerment.” Jones lived in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and is the author of “Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia.”
Human rights groups allege that, since the actions last February and March, the government has fired protesters from their jobs and kicked students out of universities. Government officials bulldozed some Shia mosques, saying the buildings were illegal.
“It was very shocking for us that the hatred had gone that far – to demolish their history,” Rajab said. “It shows the complicity of the Arab world. When they see someone burning a Koran in the U.S., the Arab world moves, but they see mosques destroyed and nobody moves.”
The United States is a strong ally of Bahrain, a banking hub which also houses the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. While the Fifth Fleet's actual significance for US military strategy has been called into question since the protests began – the base is staffed with limited numbers of Navy personnel and was described as “merely a matter of convenience rather than necessity” by The New York Times – the US has been in the awkward position of asking the Bahraini government to negotiate with protesters, but not pressing too forcefully, so as not to upset government officials in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
“I think the Saudi invasion was basically directed at Washington saying, 'Don't even think about supporting this,'” said Joe Stark, the deputy director for the Middle East division at Human Rights Watch.
Stork calls many of the government's actions punitive.
“They are punishing the population … critical of the government,” he said. “That covers the destruction of the mosques, and dismissing students from the university – it covers a wide range of the violations.”
In late November, a report that the king commissioned by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry found, among other things, that the government's security forces used “unnecessary and excessive force,” 35 protesters were killed, thousands arrested, some detainees were tortured and there was no basis for the government's claim that the protesters were plotting with neighboring Iran.
A spokesman for the Bahraini government commented, “The government welcomes the findings of the Independent Commission, and acknowledges its criticisms.” But Rajab said there has been no change since the report came out.
“You expect that if it talks about use of excessive force, that would change,” he said. “The government is still using excessive force.”
Jones, who said he was amazed that the report was as forthright as it was, agrees nothing much has changed. Bahraini government officials have reassigned the head of the National Security Agency – but really that was a promotion, Jones adds.
“The government has only made things worse,” he said. “The number of deaths in the last two months has outpaced any time since last February and March.”
At a recent protest, held in part to call attention to the lack of progress in the government, police attacked protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, just a minute or so after asking them to disperse, Rajab said.
“I was caught by the police and beaten,” he said. “Then some other officers came and stopped them. Then they started helping me.”
The minister of the Interior released a tweet saying, “After dispersing unauthorized march in Almakharqa in Manama police found man, Nabeel Rajab, lying on the ground & referred him to hospital,” as well as a video, without sound, that shows the officers walking with Rajab as he uses a cell phone and assisting him into an ambulance.
Rajab laughed when asked about the video. “That was part two,” he said.
Protesters in Bahrain are closer to the grassroots than in other Arab countries, Rajab said. “The gap between the human rights elite and the people doesn't happen in Bahrain,” he said.
During a recent week spent there, protests in the predominantly Shia villages outside of Manama were a nightly occurrence, with police check points, tear gas and smoke from burning tires lit by protesters.
Those protesters will not give up, Rajab said. “We've reached an area where we can't go back,” he said. “All the people in the country feel this.” What the pro-democracy forces need is support from the US, Rajab said.
That's Jones' opinion as well – but he doesn't see that happening any time soon.
“The Americans need to put more pressure on Bahrain to move this forward in a meaningful way,” he said. “But the U.S. has an approach in the Gulf that prioritizes the flow of oil and security in terms of Iran and we defer to Saudi Arabia on matters important to them. So it's those three things – Saudi interests, oil and Iran. There's just too much the Department of Defense and the State Department and the White House see us as invested in.”