Bahrain F1 Race: How a Sunni Backlash Kept an Uprising at Bay

Article excerpt

The Formula One race in Bahrain today has put the spotlight back on an uprising here that has faltered due to sectarian distrust.

Yaqoub al-Slaise, a young Sunni activist and assistant researcher at Bahrain University, remembers the exact moment when he decided to oppose Bahrain's uprising - once again in the spotlight with today's Formula One race here.

The country's mainly Shiite protesters, who had initially demanded only reform of the Sunni-run government, had shifted to a much bolder call after the regime began to crack down in March 2011. "The people want the fall of the regime," they shouted.

Mr. Slaise and many of his peers saw the protesters' demands as an insult: They were claiming to speak on behalf of everyone - when much of the country's Sunni minority saw things differently.

Now Slaise is a member of what analysts have dubbed Bahrain's "Sunni Awakening," formed early on to oppose the protests. The mobilization of Sunnis, a sector of society once content to sit on the political sidelines, has deepened the sectarian fault lines in this tiny kingdom on Saudi Arabia's eastern flank.

The spirit of uprising that swept the Arab world last year initially united Islamists and secularists, men and women, Sunnis and Shiites in one goal: Overthrow the autocratic regimes that had long ignored the will of the people.

But in the year since Tunisians and Egyptians kicked off the Arab Spring, the phenomenon has shifted from a regionwide revolt against corrupt, unjust rulers into a series of much narrower battles, most of them fought along sectarian lines.

To be sure, the shift reflects ideological and historical realities of the region, from ancient tribal rivalries in Libya, to fears of Christians as Islamists go for broke in Egypt, to the backdrop of the Persian-Arab power struggle in the Gulf. Much of the realignment, however, is strategic. Sectarian politics has proved an effective way for leaders to redirect the populist spirit of the uprisings in an effort to avert their downfall and boost their regional influence.

Sunni Gulf states aligned against Shiite Iran, for example, have supported the Syrian uprising in hopes of reshaping the region's balance of power in their favor. Unseating President Bashar al- Assad would eliminate a key link in the Iran-led "axis of resistance."

To mobilize support at home, Sunni regimes have seized upon the fact that the majority of opposition leaders and fighters in Syria are Sunni, with minorities such as Druze, Kurds, and Christians often reluctant to back the uprising out of fear that a Sunni Islamist government would not protect their rights.

Sunni Bahrainis: Yes to Syria's uprising, no to Bahrain's

Case in point is Bahrain, where the same citizens who are cheering on the Syrian uprising are conversely applauding their own government's crackdown on protesters at home. Sunni mosques are decorated with banners calling on followers to donate to support their "brothers" fighting against Damascus. The Shiite political leaders say they also support the Syrian uprising. But on the streets, at least some protesters are reluctant to say the same.

Meanwhile, neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia supports the uprising in Bahrain, where majority rule would likely empower Shiite politicians.

Even in Egypt, where last year Christians stood guard over Muslims prostrated in prayer during the Tahrir Square protests, there is a growing climate of distrust. The Muslim Brotherhood has raised the hackles of secularists, Christians, rights activists, and the military by abandoning promises to work for consensus and instead making an ambitious attempt to control not only parliament but also the constitution-writing committee and the presidency.

Sunnis push back on mainly Shiite protests

From the first days of protests in Bahrain, analysts raised concerns that revolution in Bahrain could awaken sectarian tensions. …