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.

Luca Bruno/AP
Sebastian Vettel of Germany crosses the finish line at the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in Sakhir, Bahrain. Vettel won the race driving for Red Bull.

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. 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.)

Saudi Arabia hardens fault lines against Iran

At least part of this shift is due to Saudi Arabia's efforts to shape the region in the wake of the Arab Spring, says Toby Craig Jones, a Rutgers University historian of Saudi Arabia. "Especially in Bahrain and Syria, Saudi's role has made sectarianism a dimension we're going to have to deal with for a long time."

In Bahrain, Saudi intervention was overt: In March 2011, Riyadh sent tanks and soldiers to suppress the protests. Its military has since pulled out, but Saudi Arabia is widely believed to be filling a gap in Bahrain's budget. And in Egypt and Syria, Saudi financial and political backing has helped empower the country's preferred new generation of Sunni leaders.

With the Saudi position demarcated, much of the rest of the Arab world began a "strategic realignment along sectarian grounds," says Hussein Ibish, columnist for Now Lebanon.

The order pits "Sunni Muslims against all religious minorities, particularly Shiites," he says. But the move is more calculated than ideological, he argues. With an entire region in flux, regional power brokers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey all sought to empower a reliable set of allies – of similar sect and persuasion – in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.

The sectarian narrative has stuck, not least because it leaves Iran increasingly marginalized. That trend certainly pleases Gulf states. But it has also found favor in the United States and the European Union.

For the US, regime change in Bahrain – home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet – could be more worrisome than in Egypt. The Fifth Fleet, America's principal military outpost in the Persian Gulf, charged with keeping oil shipping lanes open and protecting against Iranian aggression – is based just a five-minute drive from Manama.

Bahraini politics have been complicated by this geopolitical game. "Bahrain was once a local problem," says Jasim Hussein, a former lawmaker for Wefaq. "But now everything is much more complicated. You have Saudi [Arabia], the Shiite world, the United States, and the European Union all involved. It was a mistake for the authorities to let that happen."

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