Far removed from the political turmoil that has recently swept through his home-country of Bahrain, Abd al-Rahman al-Nu'aimi passed away on 1 September 2011, after four years in a deep coma. His death, triggering reactions of sympathy from across the political spectrum in Bahrain, comes at a crucial time when both government and opposition search for a modus operandi in order to salvage what is left of Bahraini politics. Reflecting upon his lifelong activism as a window to modern Bahraini politics puts the current crisis into its historical context.
Throughout his life, Abd al-Rahman al-Nu'aimi played an important role in shaping the modern political consciousness of Bahrain. His dedication to political struggle and steady commitment to leftwing values contributed to make the conception of politics in Bahrain gradually evolve from a sheer elite consensus towards a more agonistic understanding, where politics is about expressing conflicting interests, yet in a peaceful way. Embodying the opposition since the early days of his involvement in a student organisation in 1961, al-Nu'aimi tirelessly imposed new terms on the political debate,
Al-Nu'aimi was born in 1944, on al-Muharraq island, to a notable family with close links to the traditional ruling circles. Increasingly politically active in the 1960s, he broke away from that background by joining the Arab Nationalist Movement. In 1966 he graduated from the American University of Beirut with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and found himself amongst the educated elite - of the sort that continues to be represented in Kuwait by Ahmad al-Khatib - that was advocating new forms of political legitimacy, on the basis of nationalist and leftist ideologies.
In the context of a politically charged Gulf with the independence and creation of new states in both Yemen and the Lower Gulf#, al-Nu'aimi’s political activism was defined via his enrolment in the nebulous Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf that aimed to fight British imperialism and overthrow its local 'stooges'. This organisation oscillated between different levels and areas of action. It originally united regional forces to support the Dhofar rebellion in the Western part of Oman (hence the renaming Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf); yet, as the Dhofar rebellion was being crushed, it was disbanded and divided between the Bahraini and Omani branches in 1974. Al-Nu'aimi became the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. By this time, though, he was already in exile.
Following a crackdown on worker’s movements at the power station where he was an engineer in 1968, Al-Nu’aimi had left Bahrain to live in exile. He was not the only one to leave: between March 1965, the date of a major uprising in Bahrain, and the dissolution of the first Bahraini Parliament in 1975, the great majority of the members of the clandestine leftwing opposition in Bahrain whether it was the Popular Front or its Marxist-tinged counterpart, the National Liberation Front of Bahrain, left the island. They either feared further repression or were refused re-entry into the state following the state authorities’ suspicions of their political leanings and activities. After travelling via Qatar or pre-Saddam Iraq and, for some, after a revolutionary experience in Dhofar or Aden, all eventually settled in Beirut and Damascus. The policy of Ba'thist Syria was to grant residency to any Arab especially nationalists and Gulf dissidents. Al-Nu'aimi, known as 'sa'id saif', the luck-bringing sword, was no exception. He remained in Damascus for 33 years.
It was from abroad that he witnessed the rise of Shiite Islamist forces in Bahrain throughout the 1980s and watched during the 1990s the 'Intifada' mark the brutal entry into Bahraini politics of the masses from the peripheral Shiite 'villages'.
Despite of the discredited reputation that affected the Arab nationalist leftists – as much as it did the Marxists - al-Nu'aimi kept alive a secularist form of political opposition. He, at the same time, liaised with a new generation of Shiite activists in exile, including Mansur al-Jamri and Saeed al-Shehabi from the London-based Harakat Ahrar al-Bahrain al-Islamiyya (Islamic Bahrain Freedom Movement). The period of exile allowed oppositional activists to build bridges between their diverse movements: both islamists and leftists worked to raise awareness and gain international support. The Popular Front, led by Abd al-Rahman al-Nu'aimi and Abd al-Nabi al-Akry, both based in Damascus, began to embed its claims in the then universalising language of human rights. This forced it to adopt representative democracy as an ideal and to discard revolutionary goals and violent means to achieve their aims.
The views of the opposition groups in exile converged onto one common programme that advocated the restoration of the 1973 Constitution, the election of a Parliament, the lifting of the 1975 State Security Law and the release of political detainees and return of exiles.
Return to Bahrain
al-Nu'aimi returned to Bahrain in February 2001, following the Great Amnesty decree granted by the state’s new King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The same year, he was the first elected president and the acknowledged spiritual father of the National Democratic Action Society, the heir to the clandestine Popular Front. After boycotting the 2002 elections, together with four other opposition political societies, in a sign of protest against reforms deemed to fall short of the common programme requirements, al-Nu'aimi ran for parliamentary elections in 2006 on his home island of al-Muharraq. Neither he nor Munira Fakhro, Ibrahim Sharif nor any other candidate presented by the Wa'ad, - the Arabic acronym for National Democratic Action Society- ever got further than the second round to make it to the Lower Chamber of the Parliament. For many former leftwing politicians today, Bahraini politics reflects a torn, sectarian society, with no space for a secular, otherwise referred to by the ill-defined label of 'liberal', party.
What remains of the leftist opposition in Bahrain? The generation of heroic figures has begun to disappear, from the iconic Dhofar female rebel, Layla Fakhro to Al-Nu'aimi. Ibrahim Sharif, the current president of the Wa'ad was arrested and sentenced, in June 2011, to five years imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the regime.
The death of Abd-al Rahman al-Nu'aimi has generated feelings of nostalgia for a united front of the opposition supporting reforms for the sake of the nation as it had happened during the brief episode of 1954, which was referred to in a tribute paid by a member of Al-Wifaq, the main Shiite opposition organisation. Al-Nu'aimi – a Sunni, but not one who self-identified as such – was hailed as a great national politician, and is remembered as an activist above sectarianism or clans for his ability to stress the values of equality and social justice over those of identity.
What his relentless struggle shows is that national politics are about agreeing on the rules within which multiple interests and infighting can take place. The current deadlock seems to render this legacy all the more heroic as it becomes more unreachable.