Patrick Cockburn writes: In three of the Arab countries east of Egypt – Syria, Bahrain and Yemen – protesters have challenged their governments over the past year but failed to overthrow them. The reasons for those failures are very different though they have important points in common. In each of these states protesters were frustrated because a significant part of the population had a lot to lose if the ruling elite were reformed or overthrown.
In Syria and Bahrain religious identity helps explain loyalty to the powers-that-be. Protesters in Bahrain might insist that their program was secular and democratic, but everybody knew that a fair poll would affect revolutionary change by putting the majority Shia in power instead of the minority Sunni. In Syria, similarly, democracy means that the Sunni, three quarters of the population, would effectively replace the Alawites, a heterodox Shia sect, as rulers of the state.
This does not mean that the demonstrators in both countries had a secret sectarian agenda. It was simply that political divisions already ran along sectarian lines. In Bahrain the security forces were almost entirely Sunni. As the year went on sectarian hatreds became starker.
At the height of the repression, the government demolished Shia mosques claiming it had suddenly discovered they did not have planning permission. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the sectarian homogeneity of the ruling elite in Syria and Bahrain made it impossible for senior state officials to dump an unpopular regime in order to maintain their own power and privileges. In Syria the Alawites came to believe that if President Bashar al-Assad lost so would they.
The Shia and Sunni split has other serious implications. The struggle between these two Islamic traditions, so similar to the battle between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, has been escalating since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 and Shia-Sunni civil war in Iraq in 2006-7 deepened the hatred between the two sects. Of course it was always much in the interests of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assad clan in Syria and the al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain to play the sectarian card and demand communal solidarity from their co-religionists. As far back as 1991 I remember Saddam Hussein bringing the mutilated bodies of Baathist officials back from Najaf, where they had been lynched by Shia insurgents, and the terror expressed by Sunni friends in Baghdad, previously opposed to the regime, that the same fate awaited them if Saddam was toppled.
The Sunni-Shia wars
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