Story highlights

The hand-written sign held up in a Facebook photo summed it up perfectly: "Free Nabeel Rajab and Alaa Abdel Fattah."

Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Center For Human Rights, and is in the middle of serving a multi-year prison sentence (the exact term has fluctuated as the government has added and then subtracted extra time) because of his unsparing and apparently impolitic advocacy for democracy and human rights in his country.

Abdel Fattah is the son and sibling of well-known human rights activists. His father helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center[Ar], and his sister, Mona Seif, is a founder of the No to Military Trials [Ar] movement. He and his wife Manal, who was beaten by security forces when they arrested Alaa in their home, are among

The hand-written sign held up in a Facebook photo summed it up perfectly: "Free Nabeel Rajab and Alaa Abdel Fattah."

Rajab is the founder of the Bahrain Center For Human Rights, and is in the middle of serving a multi-year prison sentence (the exact term has fluctuated as the government has added and then subtracted extra time) because of his unsparing and apparently impolitic advocacy for democracy and human rights in his country.

Abdel Fattah is the son and sibling of well-known human rights activists. His father helped found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center [Ar], and his sister, Mona Seif, is a founder of the No to Military Trials [Ar] movement. He and his wife Manal, who was beaten by security forces when they arrested Alaa in their home, are among the most well-known bloggers and revolutionary political activists in Egypt. Alaa has the distinction of having been harassed and even jailed by Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Mohamed Morsi and now SCAF again.

A Facebook friend and No to Military Trials activist put up the photo because Rajab's sentence was extended yet again, the same day that Abdel Fattah was arrested. The timing might have been coincidental, but the connection between the arrests and detention of both men - and countless others, including activists, doctors, journalists and ordinary citizens whose names are not well known, but who have suffered even worse abuse, from torture to loss of nationality and murder - cannot be denied.

Indeed, if February 11, 2011 in Tahrir Square marked the height of the Arab Spring's promise, March 14 in the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, marked the beginning of its long and bloody unravelling.

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Gross miscalculation

I was in Bahrain when the Saudis, under the guise of the Gulf Cooperation Council's "Peninsula Shield Force", rolled across the King Fahd Causeway linking Saudi Arabia to the tiny island kingdom. The political high from Tahrir was less than a month old. And despite the violence in the weeks leading up to this day in Bahrain, and the rumours swirling through Manama, protesters felt that the justice of their cause, like that of their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts, would win out over the violence and brutality of their own government and its foreign allies and patrons.

They were disastrously wrong in their assessment. What's most interesting looking back on it, however, is how so many "liberal" middle and upper class Bahraini Sunnis either supported, or would not condemn, the government repression against the majority Shia population either during or after the crackdown and the involvement of GCC forces.

For anyone who was in Bahrain then and in Egypt at the time of Morsi's removal, the similarity is striking between the language used by the Bahraini government against the opposition - it was foreign supported and financed, was working against the interests of the country, was a security and even terrorist threat - and that of the Egyptian government and media in the lead-up to and after the attack on and mass killing of Brotherhood supporters. In fact, this discourse against both oppositional groupings long predates the Arab uprisings, as this 2009 talk by Rajab highlights, as well as the long history of persecution against the Brotherhood by the Egyptian state.

To be sure, the Bahraini conflict has been defined as primarily a sectarian conflict, while in Egypt the vast majority of citizens share the same Sunni Muslim heritage. But however important such primordial identities as religion, sect or ethnicity, are, in the end, the conflicts in both countries, and across the Arab world - globally, in fact - are about power and the on-going ability of small minorities who have controlled the economies and politics of their societies for generations to create "others" and enemies out of neighbours, friends and even relatives. Crucially, in separating them off from the legitimate body politic, elites make the majority of the people, on whose behalf such actions are ostensibly taken, consciously complicit in the repression of their fellow citizens.

[The protesters] might well serve as a beacon for the broader transformations in the protest cultures across the region that will be the sine qua non for a truly decolonised process of mass education and political development.

Fruitless discussions

And this is where the problem of the newest iteration of the Egyptian constitution comes into play. Almost exactly one year ago reasonable people were debating the merits of the constitution that this new one is now replacing. Experts on various aspects of Egyptian, Islamic and international law engaged in intense and sometimes acrimonious discussions over the merits of its various proposals - how powerful a force Islam would be in shaping a new legal system, whether women's and minorities' rights would be sufficiently protected, the balance of power between the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government, etc.

Whatever one's political persuasion or cultural views, what was clear was that the constitution, however much it was influenced by the then hegemonic Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, was a "long and complex document" whose myriad provisions, depending on the laws subsequently passed and the legal and political cultures that emerged as the transitional era became solidified, could have served either as the foundation for greater freedom and justice or a mask for on-going oppression.

But what was also clear to anyone was that if the new order was administered through the same routine use of repression and violence against citizens that characterised the old order, the constitution wasn't worth the proverbial paper it was printed on. This dynamic in fact made the 1971 constitution, which compares favourably both with the 2012 constitution and the one just drafted, a largely empty document. Similarly, Bahrain's 1973 constitution and reforms initiated in the 2000s have proved meaningless in the end, as the ruling elite has displayed no intention of actually sharing wealth or power with the broad population.

Empty rhetoric

Today things stand pretty much as they were a year ago in Egypt. We can accept the sincerity and sophistication of the majority of constitutional panel members that drafted the new document. But these don't mean anything as long as the system continues to function primarily through violence and repression; as long as the security and military systems operate largely outside of the law; and the vast majority of those in whose name the constitution was created - the "good" and "true" Egyptians or Bahrainis - look on silently or even support such actions, then democracy is a sham, a box no bigger than the "free protest zone" proposed by Giza's governor, who like other senior regime figures, routinely points out, correctly, that Egypt's protest laws are copying the best practices of the advanced democracies of North America and Europe.

It is against this boxing in of democracy, of freedom, dignity and social justice, that the protesters in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, and activists fighting against the Bahraini government from their ghettoised Shia villages surrounding Manama, continue their struggles.

As one of the chants from last week Cairo protests puts it, “They want to shut us up, but we will not be silent... Come and kill us, we are not better than the martyrs. Let our comrades go.”

Far more than Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Nabeel Rajab or the other "celebrity" revolutionaries who at least till now have enjoyed some level of protection from Egypt's and Bahrain's Western sponsors, it is the nameless protesters who risked so much and lost even more, who are setting the agenda for the coming generation of struggle. However much the military-led transition may try, it's highly unlikely they will in fact shut up. Instead, they might well serve as a beacon for the broader transformations in the protest cultures across the region that will be the sine qua non for a truly decolonised process of mass education and political development. And that is a development of which the elites should be very afraid indeed. 

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and  distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.