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The Arab Spring tragedy: Why newly-released Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab matters

Nabeel Rajab on his May 2014 release from prison
Nabeel Rajab on his May 2014 release from prison
Hussain Albahrani/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty

A court in Bahrain ordered the release of political activist Nabeel Rajab on bail on Sunday, temporarily freeing one of the country's best-known and most persecuted human rights figures.

Rajab will still have to return to court in January, when he will face trial and up to three years jail time over tweets he sent critical of country's dictatorial monarchy and its crackdown on political rights. So his saga, like that of his country and the democracy movement for which he has become something of a symbol, is far from over.

Why Nabeel Rajab matters

A poster calling for the release of Nabeel Rajab in the Bahraini capital, Manama (MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty)

The gregarious, eloquent, and widely respected Rajab has in many ways become a symbol of Bahrain's tragedy over the last few years: of a democracy movement that has done everything right but is nevertheless ignored by an unfeeling world. Bahrain, a tiny, wealthy Middle Eastern island nation and a close US ally, has been one of the more discouraging stories of the Arab Spring.

Pro-democracy protests began in Bahrain in early 2011, like others in the Arab world, calling peacefully for political rights and steps toward democracy. The country's authoritarian government met the protests with force and political repression, for example by arresting leaders such as Rajab; a number of peaceful protesters were killed. While low-boil protests and crackdowns continue, it appears that the monarchy has largely prevailed.

One of the central figures in the country's struggle has been Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. The government arrested Rajab in 2012 and sentenced him to two years in prison for criticizing the government. When he was released in May, he went on a speaking tour in Europe, but was again arrested almost immediately on returning to Bahrain in early October. He now again faces the threat of prison, which is widely understood as the government's attempt to silence him.

Rajab's work in Bahrain is considered by human rights groups as crucially important and his commitment to democratic ideals important well beyond the country. In January, Stephen Colbert interviewed Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, asking him who the next Nelson Mandela would be. Roth named Rajab, along with Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo.

Bahrain's tragedy

A Bahraini protester waves the national flag (MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty)

Unlike so much of the pro-democracy movements in the Arab Spring, Bahrain's has done everything right, maintaining liberal democratic principles and for years meeting the government's force with peaceful protest. Yet it the outside world, especially the US, have mostly shrugged as Bahrain's monarchy has expelled Western journalists, persecuted political activists, and violently suppressed dissent.

The US government sees Bahrain as a regional ally against Iran, an idea that the country's monarchy, which is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia's, has played up. (Most Bahrainis are Shia Muslims and Iran is a Shia theocracy; Bahrain's government is run by the Sunni minority.) The US military also bases a naval fleet in the Persian Gulf country, making it strategically important. To much of the Middle East (and to others), then, Bahrain is seen as proof of American hypocrisy, yet another sign that the US talks about democracy and human rights but ultimately cares more about its own narrow security interests.

In July, Bahrain expelled a high-ranking US State Department official for human rights, Tom Malinowksi, an extraordinarily hostile step for any country to take, especially an ally. The State Department objected but the US government did not change its overarching policy toward Bahrain, which is one of support. If the Obama administration would not turn against the Bahraini monarchy over something like this, then it is difficult to imagine it doing much to help someone like Nabeel Rajab, much less support his movement for a democratic Bahrain.

Amazingly, none of that seems to have discouraged Rajab in his work to bring political equality to his country, nor has it eroded the bravery that led him to return home in October, when he must have known what would happen to him.