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Bahrain F1 race: How a Sunni backlash kept an uprising at bay

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

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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.

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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. Less than a week after the uprising began on Feb. 14, 2011, a group called The Gathering of National Unity (TGONU) led a march to oppose the Pearl Roundabout demonstrators – a move praised by the government.

From his office in the wealthy Busaiteen district of Bahrain, TGONU leader Abdullatif al-Mahmood expresses a widely held Sunni sentiment when he describes the protesters as "a certain group of Shiite [who have] been working ... to bring up their children on aggressiveness and hatred."

A youth faction of TGONU, Sahwat Al Fatih, which has called for harsh crackdowns on demonstrations, celebrated the anniversary of the counterrevolution this year by teaching followers "new ways to insult Shiites," according to Slaise. Bahrain's prime minister recently lauded the new movement's "unwavering, solid stances in defending the country's unity and integrity from any damage."

Shiite protesters insist their aims are not sectarian. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, says TGONU and Fatih were "made up" by the government "to fight Shia and to present the story in Bahrain as a Shia-Sunni conflict."

But today Bahrain's protests are almost exclusively Shiite, and Sunni groups portray them as driven by a religious agenda dictated by Shiite Iran. Some Shiite protesters and opposition politicians say they believe that many Sunnis still silently support their uprising and could help force change if they were more vocal.

"The moderate Sunnis represent a major threat" to the ruling family, agrees Matar Matar, a former lawmaker for the Shiite opposition group Wefaq who resigned during the 2011 uprising. "If there are Sunnis also supporting change, the [regime's] campaign against the Shias will fail."

Still, there is growing distrust between Bahrain's majority Shiites and the Sunni community, which tends to be more well-to-do.

"The Sunnis have disconnected themselves from us completely," says Mohammed al-Tawash, a prominent Shiite businessman, recalling how Sunni friends have found excuses not to call or visit. Economic boycotts are also widespread; Slaise says Sunni activists have circulated a booklet listing Shiite businesses they are not supposed to patronize. (Editor's note: The original story misidentified Mohammed al-Tawash.)

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