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Arab leaders exploit their countries' divisions to stay in power

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.

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To a certain extent, it's working. Bahrain's protest movement has struggled, and the West has not harshly criticized the government's crackdown It, too, fears Iran's influence. Saudi Arabia, whose Shiite community is small but shares similar frustrations to Bahraini Shiites, is also concerned about Iran – and knows it can play the sectarian card to rally support in a regional crisis.

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"They know they can rally Sunni communities across ... the Middle East against Iran," says Professor Jones. "Now, with the intervention in Bahrain, it seems like they've played the card.... Now they're saying, 'The battle is a sectarian one, and we can't have another Shiite power on our doorstep.' "

The "threat" of foreign agitators

In Jordan, the division exploited was not religion, but national identity. The country is divided between "pure" Jordanians, as they often call themselves, and those of Palestinian origin. Protesters have come from both groups, united in their calls for reform. But the government and its supporters have dismissed the protesters as "Islamists" – a code word for Palestinians. They have implied that the protesters' desire for an elected government is a scheme to establish a Palestinian homeland, thus spurring a violent backlash in the streets, says Nasseem Tarawnah, one of the few journalists to interview the thuggish counterprotesters.

"Every time reform is mentioned, the issue of national identity isn't far behind," says Mr. Tarawnah, a local blogger. "It's a nation that, on a social level, seems not entirely at peace with itself, and that makes the reform process a lot more difficult."

In Syria, the regime has consistently attributed demonstrations to foreign agitators or Islamic extremists – playing on the bad memories of 1982, when the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood tried to take over Syria.

Today's protesters, overwhelmingly Sunni, now chant anti-Shiite slogans – veiled references to President Assad and his Ala­wite faith, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

"The protesters bent over backwards at first to shape their message to be nonsectarian," Mr. Landis says. "But when things get tough, the sectarian aspects come out."

But the strategy could backfire in the long run because such tactics have already raised tensions between Iran and other nations in the region.

Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, says that using identity tensions to put off reform may only delay – and fuel – popular uprisings.

"That's when you get ethnic conflicts, sectarian conflicts, any kind of other identity-based conflict," Mr. Hiltermann says. "It leads to civil wars. This is playing with fire."

Correspondent Kristen Chick contributed reporting from Manama, Bahrain.


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