- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
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 — which appeared to have been within reach only a few days ago — 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.
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.