Nabeel Rajab: The problematic success of ‘human rights’ in the Arab world

Is there space for dialogue with the government in Bahrain?

Nabeel Rajab
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was recently released from jail [AP]

Nabeel Rajab is an honest man. When he makes a promise, in my experience, you can count on him keeping it.

So I, along with almost everyone else who knows him, was a bit surprised when upon his release from jail on May 24, he said he “had no interest in politics”. Much closer to form was his tweet not long after that he’d meet with the king to resolve the political situation if asked. By the time he tweeted that Bahrain has become a “dictatorship kingdom” four days later, it was clear that two years in prison have done nothing to cow him.

Rajab is back. But for how long? When I spoke with him recently, he felt it may not be for too long.

“Several government-controlled papers just published stories saying I’ll be back in jail if I don’t stop speaking,” he told me. This is apparently how Bahrain’s government warns the country’s leading dissident voice to shut up or pack his bags again for prison. He got the message. But he has no plans to be silent. Like the artist-activists El Haqed in Morocco and Ramy Essam in Egypt, and so many other activists across the region, the worse the political situation gets, the more defiant the most courageous human rights actors become.

The question is: who can and will support them as they continue playing the role of David to their governments’ Goliath?

“To many people, I’m the only one speaking frankly and straightforwardly about the situation. So I have either to keep quiet or leave country or be in jail. But I know I only have one choice: keep speaking no matter what the cost and sacrifice. Otherwise, no change will come.”

Even as human rights become the currency of the realm so to speak, the game continues to be being played on the government’s terms.

Rajab is speaking in the context of the number of prisoners doubling since he entered prison in 2012. Many Shia families have at least one member who is either in exile, in prison or dead. The government’s policies have become even more violent. In Bahrain, the number of riot police, the vast majority of Sunnis imported from foreign countries such as Pakistan and Jordan have doubled. And, he lamented, this has led at least a dozen Bahrainis losing all hope and turning to violence against the police and state.

Human rights and oppressive regimes

The main problem is that the government today has almost no incentive for serious dialogue.

“Parliament is in its hands and so it can legislate repressive laws that turn the country into a dictatorship without headaches. Its PR machine has effectively normalised the situation so that it faces no threat of consequences from its main international allies, while the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries actively support its repression,” says Rajab.

Most importantly, the government “is in control of the street now. Protests can be contained”. He adds: “It’s very close to Palestine. In jail I was thinking this. Now we have total suppression, like South Africa and Israel, of all housing and other forms of cohabitation, the government both controls and surrounds the local population. And the government depends on foreign patrons and PR the same way Israel does to maintain its policies on the ground.”

Also similar to the difficulties facing Palestinian human rights advocates, even someone with the stature of Rajab has a lot of trouble having much of an impact with European governments, never mind the United States.

“It’s complicated” was the best a State Department spokesman would say last time he was imprisoned. The Europeans, particularly the British, are completely unwilling to jeopardise ties with Bahrain, and by extension, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy GCCl countries, in order to support real movement towards democracy.

One crucial development is how the use of a human rights discourse has become, in a tragic way, an enabler of continued, and even increased, oppression. The manner in which a heavily watered down set of recommendations from the so-called Independent Commission of Inquiry was accepted by the King of Bahrain with great fanfare, only to be completely ignored, is a good example of this process. Even as human rights becomes the currency of the realm, so to speak, the game continues to be played on the government’s terms.

Many long-term Arab human rights activists in fact see this paradox as central to the problem of human rights in the region today. Indeed, at a Lund University workshop for senior Arab human rights practitioners and researchers which I was attending, I spoke with Rajab, and Bahraini researcher and advocate Alaa Shehabi who explained that the adoption of human rights language by the government simultaneously empowers and co-opts, politicises and is depoliticises such struggles: “A clear ceiling is placed on what you can say, so it is okay to talk about violations and torture, but it is not okay to point fingers at those responsible and call for their accountability. The king can always feign ignorance and promise to do something, which never gets done.”

Real action

As with the Oslo “peace” process, real action is permanently deferred; maintaining the appearance of addressing or at least thinking about addressing key concerns is good enough to take care of any pressure from in or outside.

Bahrain, Palestine, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Jordan, Saudi Arabia … worst of all, Syria. Most Arab countries beside Tunisia have seen an aggravation of their human rights situation since the uprisings began in late 2010. Yet for the long term, advocates gathered in Lund as well as their younger colleagues, there is reason for hope. Governments can still co–opt human rights discourses and imprison activists who push for substantive structural change, but human rights, and the attched universal norms are now an indelible part of political subjectivities, discourses and rights across the region.

Even those who don’t typically support a liberal interpretation of human rights know that when the chips are down, it is the human rights community who will come to their aid. In Bahrain, as in so many other countries, the government seems to have succeeded in factionalising society, but new coalitions cutting across gender, class, age and other forms of identity are emerging that are globally connected and empowered and pose a real challenge to present governments.

Whether it is activists such as Nabeel Rajab, or artists like El Haqed, Ramy Essam or numerous other imprisoned artists and activists, the threat of prison or even death is no longer enough to silence people. Silence is no longer an option. Innumerable struggles at grassroots level across the region, from remote tribal areas of Yemen to poor fishing villages in Egypt and working class towns in Morocco, have since before the Arab Spring been the sites of struggles that governments will find increasingly difficult to co-opt or repress, especially if they continue failing to deliver either development or democracy to their peoples.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.