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
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
"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
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
"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
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. …