For Bahrain protest movement, democratic hopes give way to sectarian concerns

By Michael Birnbaum
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 10:30 AM

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A protest movement that was inspired by the new calculus of the democratic revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt now appears to be following a decidedly old equation: the Sunni-Shiite divide that has riven the Middle East with violence for centuries.

And with Saudi Arabian tanks now in Bahrain to help keep order and many of the nation's majority Shiites dismayed that their demands for greater influence in the country will not be met anytime soon, the future of this prosperous island looks suddenly contentious and bleak.

"I could see a Sunni extremist blowing himself up during an Ashura celebration" - a major Shiite holiday - "or a Shia going to a Sunni mosque," said Jasim Husain, a member of the main Shiite opposition political society, al-Wefaq, and a former member of parliament.

"Bahrain is not going to be stable," he said. "The country has changed forever."

The protesters occupied Pearl Square in central Manama just days after demonstrations in another square, Cairo's Tahrir, helped bring down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Those movements were largely youth-driven and mostly secular. So too were the revolution in Tunisia and protests in Yemen, Oman and Kuwait.

The Bahraini protesters' demands - that the al-Khalifa monarchy give up many of its powers and that the parliament be reorganized to give more power to the 70 percent of the population that is Shiite - proved too much for Saudi Arabia. Its leaders feared the influence of Shiite Iran in the tiny island nation off its coast and worried about Bahrain's influence on Saudi Arabia's own Shiite population in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

Shiites in Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia took to the streets in recent days to protest the crackdown in Bahrain, further reinforcing the impression among some Bahraini Sunnis that the demands were sectarian, not political, in nature.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that the Saudi involvement in Bahrain was "foul," heightening the regional crisis.

Husain said he worried that the charges of sectarianism were self-fulfilling.

"Now I think we are going to see more Iranian influence," he said. "We had a golden opportunity to overcome our problems in the best way possible, and we have missed it."

Meanwhile, there are Sunni boycotts of many Shiite businesses, and vice versa. Many here say even friendships between Sunnis and Shiites have changed, at least for now.

Many protesters, meanwhile, still say that all they want is equal opportunity, not sectarian strife.

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