Do Bahrain's Sunnis Like the Smell of Tear Gas?

A protest at Peal Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on Feb. 20, 2011. (Photo Mahmood Al-Yousif)

For Bahrain's Shi'ite majority, their country is still a battleground. Since protesters suffered a brutal crackdown at the hands of security forces more than a year ago, the Shi'ite opposition movement has continued to push back, demanding an end to the ruling Al Khalifa family's stranglehold on political and economic power as well as the release of political prisoners, many of whom have been sentenced to life.

Thousands marched last month in rallies organized by Bahrain's main opposition organization, Al Wefaq. In the villages of Sanabis and Sitra, which are predominantly Shi'ite, those rallies turned to clashes with police. Police used tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons to disperse the crowd. Village residents say the government is now using CR gas, which is significantly more potent than the CS gas normally used, and that police are now shooting tear gas not only at protesters, but also into private homes.

Where is the Sunni minority while this is happening? It is true that Sunnis benefit from the protection of a ruling family that stands on their side of the sectarian divide, but is this the environment in which they want to live? Even if their villages have been spared the smoke and rubble, do they not feel the effects? Economic growth dropped from 4.5 percent to 2.2 percent between 2010 and 2011. Investors and tourists are being scared off. College students from different sects don't talk to each other.

The situation is complicated, and Sunnis of course cannot all be lumped into a single point of view. Some Sunnis have their own grievances about access to housing or the government's failure to fight corruption and migrant prostitution. Many want a more democratic political system, although they fear the repercussions of being outnumbered by the Shi'ites in such a system. Few are eager for dialogue with either the ruling family or their sectarian foe.

Hardliners in the Sunni camp see the Shi'ite opposition as pawns of Iran and are alarmed by talks held recently by the royal court minister with Al Wefaq and secular opposition groups. Efforts to mobilize Sunni political factions, however, have fizzled amid disorganization and disagreements over leadership. Because Sunnis have failed to find an agenda around which to rally, their detractors claim that the only thing they can agree on is opposition to the opposition.

One thing is certain. If the country is to be pulled out of this period of brutality and unrest, Bahrainis are going to have to join together. They are not going to get any help from the United States—whose only concern is maintaining its Fifth Fleet in the country in case of military action against Iran—and the Arab League didn't even mention the crisis at its meeting in February.

That is not to say that the crisis is not regionally significant. Bahrain may be a tiny country, but the Sunni-Shi'ite hostility echoes from the Arabian Peninsula to Syria and Iraq. When the Bahraini uprising broke out last year, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia sent in troops out of concern that the protests might spill into the Shi'ite Eastern Province region where Saudi oilfields are located. On the other side of Bahrain, (Shi'ite) Iran is backing Syria's regime as it kills thousands. These conflicts are interconnected and reinforce one another. Fallout threatens at every turn to bleed across borders all over the Middle East.

The signals in Bahrain can be hard to decipher, especially with the limited amount of media in the country. But one way or another, if the people of Bahrain are to instigate any kind of positive change in their broken society, Sunnis and Shi'ites are going to have to come to the table and compromise on how a more democratic system of government would represent both sides fairly. And then they are going to have to turn their attention to the royal family that withholds that representation.

Maybe it can't be done. Analysts have described getting all interested parties in the same room as nearly impossible. But what is the alternative? At the Pearl Roundabout protests last February and March, security forces were ruthless. They stopped doctors from treating the wounded. They shut down a hospital. And after the protests were sufficiently crushed, the government went about locking up anyone who had raised his or her voice. Subsequent internal investigations into abuses of power have been a joke, and security forces' behavior has not changed. Human Rights Watch has revealed additional instances of police severely beating detainees in the past month, some of them minors.

What level of savagery will finally transcend sectarianism? If a boot chokes the neck of your neighbor, do you not make a sound?

Joshua Pringle is a master's student of international relations at New York University as well as the senior editor of Worldpress.org.

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