Arab leaders threatened by the region's uprisings may have finally hit on a tactic that can undermine popular support for protesters: playing on religious and national divides.
Since Tunisians overthrew their dictator in January, sparking protests across the Middle East, Arab regimes have been seeking to shut down the demonstrators before they, too, are shown the exit. Among the most popular formulas: fueling longstanding social or religious divisions.
In a region notorious for such schisms, many of the protest movements were, at first, remarkably united across sectarian lines for political and economic change. But as wary leaders began framing the protests as a matter of identity or religion rather than reform, citizens turned on protesters - significantly weakening their movements.
"Authoritarianism thrives and supports itself on dividing and ruling," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "It will use whatever the best methods are for dividing a society, whether it's national questions, ethnic questions, sectarian questions.... [Regimes] keep the people from uniting against them by playing on these types of insecurity."
Genuine reform or a Sunni-Shiite struggle?
A prime example is Bahrain, where a Sunni elite has long suppressed a Shiite majority. When protests broke out in February, Bahrain's ruling family and its Gulf allies were quick to reframe them as an Iran-backed Shiite takeover - rather than a genuine push for reform.
"The protesters aren't talking about Shiism or Sunnism ... their political language is about social justice ... democratic rights, and reform," says Toby Jones, a Middle East history professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "The way [the regime is] justifying a crackdown on these public protests ... is to say that this is a foreign plot."
That approach plays on the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional dominance that pits the rich Sunni kingdom against Iran's Shiite theocracy. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, it has played out in everything from Iraq's civil war to Lebanese tensions between Sunni politicians and the militant Shiite Hezbollah group.
On March 14, Saudi troops entered Bahrain at its request to help put down the protest movement. Two days later, security forces cleared the main encampment in the capital. Since then, Shiites have been targeted by security forces at checkpoints and many have described being arrested, subjected to anti-Shiite slurs, and beaten.
It's all an effort by Bahrain's rulers to "build hatred" between Shiite and Sunni citizens, says Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq, a leader of the Al Wafaq Shiite political bloc. "They're willing to destroy the community just to put off real reform."
To a certain extent, it's working. …