The recent second anniversary of the Bahraini ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings has been marked by renewed clashes between largely Shia protesters and government security forces, despite efforts by the regime and opposition groups to enter into peace talks. The country’s Al-Khalifa monarchy, who are Sunnis, has long ruled over the Shia-majority kingdom. Anti‑regime Shia accuse the government of sectarian-based economic and political marginalisation.
While the Bahraini unrest is now mostly sectarian in nature, the original 2011 revolts were not. The protesters who initially took to the streets demanding reform included a prominent Sunni activist, Ibrahim Sharif, who is now serving a five year prison sentence. Even Sunni religious clerics including the high profile Shaykh Abd al-Latif Aal Mahmud came out and urged the government to stop its crackdown on protesters and human rights activists. Sunnis and Shia came out in mass to participate in the “Gathering of National Unity” in February 2011.
However, the government and the state media targeted Shia protesters, accusing them of promoting a sectarian agenda. Allegations of torture and killings perpetrated by the Bahraini security forces against Shia demonstrators emerged, and Sunni voices for reform became increasingly distant. The same Sunni clerics in Bahrain who initially criticised the government began to endorse the Al-Khalifa’s sectarian rhetoric.
Sectarian unrest in Bahrain did not begin in 2011. And sectarian rumblings in the island kingdom have long interested its paternal neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which is home to a restive Shia minority in its eastern areas. In 2007, when Bahraini Shia demonstrated against the Al-Khalifa regime, the Saudi government, under the leadership of King Abdullah, threatened to intervene but did not follow through.
For Saudi Arabia, the circumstances of 2011 prompted a stronger response. The speed with which long‑standing dictatorships were swept away in Tunisia and Egypt alarmed the monarchs of the Gulf. Within a month of the region’s revolts spreading to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened, with the agreement of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and sent troops to Bahrain to back the country’s security forces.
Although Saudi officials have denied links to the violent crackdowns on protesters initiated by Bahrain’s security forces, claiming that their presence is strictly designed to protect Bahrain’s state infrastructure, many Bahraini Shia accuse the Saudi soldiers of actively participating in the torture of Shia detainees. Saudi Shia who pledged solidarity with their brethren in Bahrain held multiple demonstrations demanding that the Saudi regime cease its intervention. The Saudi government took the threat seriously, deploying more security forces to the country’s east to contain its own growing domestic sectarian unrest.
Since 1979, the Shia theocracy of Iran has lurked in the background of sectarianism in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Bahraini government has frequently accused Iran of supporting Shia demonstrations in an attempt to destabilise the kingdom. These claims have not been entirely without merit. In the 1980s, Iran financed violent Shia organisations in Bahrain. However, the Bahraini regime has persistently sought to accuse Iran of stirring up the island’s Shia population in response to often legitimate claims by the Shia of political and economic marginalisation. The inability, or refusal, of the Al-Khalifa family to move beyond blaming Iran and deal effectively with the grievances of the Shia has only exacerbated the problem the regime now faces. Shia activists often emphasise the government’s deliberate attempt to use Iran to marginalise them. A similar pattern has occurred in Saudi Arabia over the same period.
When the Bahraini uprisings intensified throughout 2011, the Sunni religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with other anti‑Shia clerics in the Arab world, began to demonise the Shia of Bahrain as agents of Iran. Shaykh Muhammad al-Arifi, a high profile cleric who makes regular appearances on Arab television channels and has more than a million Twitter followers, said in a television interview in early 2011: “I see a huge difference between what is happening in Bahrain and what took place in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. These revolutions were for all citizens and received no external support. The people have been marginalised and suffered many grievances.” He singled out Tunisia, claiming that the population there “suffered religious, economic and political oppression under the rule of Zayn al-Abidin”, its deposed ruler. By contrast, he argued that the “Bahraini uprisings are sectarian oriented and devoid of demands for reforms”.
Some Arab television channels including al-Wisal and al-Rahmah highlighted the suffering of some Sunnis in Bahrain at the hands of Shia protesters, in an appeal to all Sunnis to beware of the Shia. Pictures and videos of gruesome injuries allegedly suffered by members of the largely Sunni security forces or by members of the Sunni public are televised, inflaming sectarian fervour among Sunnis.
This propaganda war has reached new heights thanks to the events in Syria. The Assad regime, from the Shia Alawite sect, has tortured, killed and bombed Sunni civilians, and done so with the support of the region’s most prominent Shia political actors, Iran and Hezbollah. These developments have worked in favour of the Bahraini ruling family on two counts. First, the more extreme nature of the conflict in Syria has diverted the world’s attention away from Bahrain. And second, the support of Iran for the Assad regime has strengthened the claims of the Bahraini regime and its supportive clerics in Saudi Arabia that Iran is a subversive sectarian influence throughout the region, including in Bahrain, and an influence that needs to be countered.
Other Arab countries, including the largely Sunni but relatively tolerant Egypt, have refused to acknowledge the grievances of the Bahraini Shia. In August 2012, the Bahraini activist Maryam Khawaja was denied entry into Egypt for “security reasons”. Egypt’s Al-Azhar university which is considered as the bastion of Sunni Islam, but recognised for its acceptance of Shiism as a legitimate Islamic sect (Twelver and Zaydi sects), recently invited the outspoken and high profile Salafi cleric Muhammad Hassan to give a highly critical speech about Shiism.
The anniversary of the Bahraini uprisings has thus given cause to reflect on the developments of the Arab Spring as a whole. The protest movements in the region have not been monolithic. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia were genuinely popular movements, seeking the overthrow of dictators in favour of democracies. But Bahrain’s experience of the Arab Spring has developed into a much more ugly sectarian battle, pitting the Al-Khalifa regime, with the support of Saudi Arabia, conservative Sunni clerics and most of Bahrain’s Sunni minority on one side, and activists for the country’s Shia majority on the other. This development has suited the regime perfectly well; painting the conflict as sectarian in nature has enabled the regime to delegitimise the popular movement against it and galvanise the support of Sunni regimes, clerics and populations abroad.