Bahrain regime promoting sectarian division

Marc Lynch writes:

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse. A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states. Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off). The road to political compromise and meaningful reform now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom — not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a animosity. Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors. The tenor of Sunni-Shi’a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious “reality.” The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shi’a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi’a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.

Mohammed Ayoob writes:

The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.

That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).

But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.

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