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. 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.
"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.
"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.