The Bahraini activist Jassim Buhejji was a quiet figure who nonetheless played a formative role in sustaining the best of his country’s political traditions.
A few days after the first anniversary of the uprising in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, one of the footsoldiers of the island’s independence movement passed away in Sharjah. His name was Jassim Buhejji, his age around the late 70s (no one really kept track of dates of birth in the region until quite recently). He may be little known outside Bahrain, but his character and his role in the country’s history – as well as the timing of his death – make it all the more appropriate that he be remembered.
Jassim Buhejji’s public career was framed by the colonial era in the Gulf, even if the external power that continued to press hard on people’s livelihoods and dignity had by then redefined territories such as Bahrain as “protectorates”. The resistance to this subjugation began to take modern political form after the second world war, when Bahrain – whose vital strategic position meant it became the seat of the “British residency” in the Gulf – became a hotbed of political activism of a kind unrivalled in the region even today.
Buhejji was one of the founding members of Bahrain’s National Union Committee (NUC), a non-sectarian, pan-Arab independence movement formed in 1954. He married the daughter of its secretary Abdul Rahman al-Bakir, in turn one of the most prominent independence leaders in the Arab Gulf states in the 20th century.
The NUC was created in the wake of two significant developments: a strike in 1953 by the Arab employees of Aramco (the United States-controlled oil company in Saudi Arabia), when many of the company’s Bahraini workers returned to share tales of the popular activism that had swept the eastern province of their giant neighbour; and the escalation in 1953-54 of sectarian clashes in Bahrain, which highlighted the need for national unity if independence was to be achieved.
The direct result was the establishment of a number of unity movements, amongst them the National Union Committee. The NUC’s demands included a fully elected parliament, the legalisation of workers’ unions, and the establishment of a supreme court in Bahrain.
An epic trial
A wave of Arab nationalism in the region was approaching a peak in the mid-1950s, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution of 1952 led by the “Free Officers” movement and Gamal Abdel Nasser. In early May 1955, Nasser – the president of Egypt and the most popular and powerful leader in the Arab world – made a stopover in Manama, Bahrain’s capital; he was returning from Indonesia where he had attended the historic Bandung conference the previous month that had discussed self-determination and autonomous government for peoples across Asia and Africa (the so-called “third world”).
It was a young Jassim Buhejji who ascended the aircraft steps to welcome the visiting dignitary, the prelude to Nasser being carried on the shoulders of cheering Bahrainis – all despite the presence of Charles Belgrave, the British advisor to the island’s Emir (whose influential political role, lasting from 1926-57, led Time magazine to describe him as “the uncontrollable genie”).
In October the following year, the covertly planned “tripartite aggression” by Britain, France and Israel against Nasser’s Egypt provoked fury across the Arab world. This intensified a protest movement that had led to a general strike by Bahraini workers the previous March, and which now reaffirmed its demand for the ousting of Charles Belgrave (who indeed left the country within months). In the aftermath, the paths of Buhejji and Nasser were linked again by a high-profile civil-court case – which proved a legal epic.
Bahrain’s government responded to the demonstrations by making arrests and organising a trial (conducted in the English language) where three other founders of the NUC – Abdul Rahman al-Bakir, Abdul Aziz al-Shamlan, and Abdul Ali Aliwat – were accused of attempting to assassinate the island’s ruler, three members of the ruling family, and Belgrave himself. The three were sentenced to fourteen years in prison and exiled to the British-owned island of St Helena in the distant south Atlantic ocean (4,700 miles from Bahrain).
But the case was to stretch to five years; after an appeal process that started in 1959 in St Helena, and made its way to the House of Lords, the activists were released in 1961. The trio were even to speak at a meeting in Britain’s parliament after their release, though when Bahrain won its independence from Britain in 1971 only al-Shamlan was able to return; al-Bakir and Aliwat died while in exile. (Miriam Joyce, professor of middle-east history at Purdue University, has written a valuable, detailed account of the incident: The Bahraini Three on Saint Helena, 1956-1961, Middle East Journal, 54/3, Autumn 2000).
The activists’ defence was conducted by a London-based law firm called Sheridan & Associates. For almost half a century, mystery surrounded both the source of the significant funding needed to represent them and the identity of the person who channelled the funds to the firm. Sheridan & Associates, whose head travelled to St Helena for the appeal, maintained that it was paid by a “source” in London (Bahrain’s ruler, says Miriam Joyce, assumed the funds came from his enemies). The mystery was solved when, on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the NUC, Abdul Rahman al-Bakir’s son Ibrahim revealed that none other than Jassim Buhejji – then in exile in Kuwait, where he was acting as a liaison officer between the movement and regional leaders – had channelled the funds; and that their origin was the mission of the United Arab Republic (UAR, a short-lived union of the states of Egypt and Syria, whose president was Gamal Abdel Nasser).
Nasser was “personally concerned with the wellbeing of the Bahraini prisoners and their defence”, Ibrahim al-Bakir confirmed directly to me. Buhejji was also actively responsible for delivering funds from Egypt and Kuwait to the families of Bahrain’s exiled independence leaders. The case of the activists received the attention of other leaders including Ghana’s post-independence president Kwame Nkrumah, who even (according to Ibrahim al-Bakir) suggested to Nasser that he send a group of commandos to St Helena to free the men.
It is important to note, however, that pan-Arab nationalists did not consider receiving funds from a fellow Arab state as “foreign funding” – but as solidarity as part of their shared Arab cause.
The Bahraini activists received financial compensation from the British government following their release in 1961, and this afforded them the means to restart their lives. Buhejji then travelled to Cairo and handed over all the excess funds to the head of the Arab affairs bureau at the office of the UAR president; the latter remarked to Buhejji that it was the first time that a movement or political party in receipt of financial support from the UAR had made such a gesture. Gamal Abdel Nasser reputedly acknowledged the act, which reflected on the integrity of Buhejji and the NUC as a whole, by asking to meet Jassim Buhejji to thank him in person and reiterate support for the Bahrain independence movement.
Egypt continued to support the families of Bahraini nationalists who had stood by it during the tripartite aggression (known in the west as the “Suez crisis”), and – according to opposition nationalist activist Jassim Murad – sent them approximately 800 Egyptian pounds a month.
The exile of the NUC leaders was followed by the Bahraini government’s disbanding of the movement and scattering of its leaders. Buhejji himself found a base and a role in Kuwait, and later self-exile in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE. He was buried there on 20 February 2012.
People close to Buhejji tell me that he had repeatedly reprised the role he played during the St Helena affair. He never assumed the leadership of a political party; he was content to be a footsoldier for a cause he believed in. He was aware both of his capabilities and of the importance that his unrivalled contacts in Egypt and the Gulf could play in advancing the movement’s goals. Buhejji stressed to me during our numerous encounters the importance of national unity in the country – a point reinforced by his 18-year-old grandson and namesake Jassim Buhejji, who told me at his grandfather’s funeral: “My grandfather would always say about the Shi’a ‘They are our family, this is their land as well’.” Buhejji, who hails from a Sunni family, would march in Shi’a funerals, carrying coffins and sharing moments of joy and grief.
On his last visit to my office a few weeks ago, Jassim Buhejji spoke of the hardship of living in the Gulf in the middle of the 20th century. I repeatedly asked him about his meetings with Gamal Abdel Nasser; but though he spoke of Nasser fondly he never, out of respect I presume, divulged details of their meetings.
Jassim Buhejji’s passing comes at another time of trial for Bahrain. The island is today in need of such level-headed voices that identify themselves as members of an inclusive nation rather than according to sect. His life is emblematic of a noble Bahraini reality: that this nation led the region in popular activism, gave birth to movements such as the National Unity Committee which offered solidarity to Egypt during the military attack against it, and supported the political rights of citizens of different religious affiliations. This inheritance, which sets Bahrain apart from the neighbouring Gulf monarchies with which today it is sadly compared, is the achievement of Jassim Buhejji and his generation.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy on February 28, 2012.