Bahrain Brings Back the Sectarianism | Marc Lynch
The Bahraini regime responded not only with violent force, but also by encouraging a nasty sectarianism in order to divide the popular movement and to build domestic and regional support for a crackdown. Anti-Shi’a vituperation spread through the Bahraini public arena, including both broadcast media and increasingly divided social media networks. This sectarian framing also spread through the Arab media, particularly Saudi outlets. The sectarian frame resonated with the narratives laid in the dark days of the mid-2000s, when scenes of Iraqi civil war and Hezbollah’s rise in Lebanon filled Arab television screens, pro-U.S. Arab leaders spread fears of a “Shi’a Crescent”, and the Saudis encouraged anti-Shi’ism in order to build support for confronting Iranian influence.
Now, the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain seems to have been fully consumed by this cynical sectarian framing, and the regional Saudi-Iranian cold war which had been largely left behind by the Arab uprisings has suddenly returned to center stage. The sending of Saudi and GCC security forces to Bahrain follows on similar political campaigns, while the regime’s positions and sectarian framing have been backed across the Gulf media — including al-Jazeera Arabic, which has barely covered Bahrain even as it has focused heavily on Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. Meanwhile, leading Shi’a political figures across the region, from Hassan Nasrallah to Ali Sistani, are rushing to the defense of the protestors. Both have the effect of reinforcing the sectarian frame and distracting from the calls for democratic change.
The United States may see the preservation of the Bahraini regime as essential to its strategic position, given its concerns about the Fifth Fleet and about losing a key part of its decades-long strategy of containing Iranian power. But what the Bahraini regime is doing to maintain power may badly hurt America’s position as well. The harsh repression, immediately and publicly following the visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, suggests either American complicity or impotence. The refusal of serious reform probably makes the survival of the regime less rather than more likely. And finally, the sectarian framing of Bahrain has the potential to rebound upon other Arab states with significant Shi’a populations, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It may also drive Iraq’s leaders into a more assertively Shi’a and pro-Iranian stance, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his rivals seek to win popularity with Iraqi Shi’a who identify with their Bahraini counterparts. If the Obama administration hopes to define a new vision for the region, it needs to leave behind such outdated concepts and lines of division. Bahrain, sadly, with the help of its regional allies, has brought them back into fashion.
The Iranians have never been off-stage, they’ve just kept to the wing.
The next government to go has to be Netanyahu’s or the Iranians are going to avoid paying up what they owe for a while longer than is wise.