Sunni-Shi'ite Divide Clouds Prospects for Reform in Bahrain

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HO / Reuters

Saudi King Abdullah (L) welcomes Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on his arrival at Riyadh Airport, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 23rd, 2011.

"Not Sunni, Not Shi'ite, Bahraini!" was the most popular slogan chanted by Bahrain's pro-democracy demonstrators, but that all-inclusive message was poorly reflected in the crowd of protesters gathered at Manama's Pearl Roundabout over the past week. Most of the protesters were Shi'ite, and though many assured me that Sunnis were somewhere in the crowd, they were difficult — if not impossible — to find. Ibrahim Sharif was the one exception. A Sunni politician and activist, Sharif is one of the most highlyegarded leaders in the democracy movement, revered by Shi'ites for breaking with the Sunni-dominated power structure, and respected by pro-democracy Sunnis who support reform but wouldn't necessarily step into the roundabout to wave a placard.

"You won't see many Sunnis here," Sharif told TIME. "They have been told by the government that the Shi'ites want to take over the country." Of course it isn't true — "We want to choose our leaders, not be the leaders," one protestor said — but the fear is deeply ingrained in a Sunni minority population that has ruled over this Shi'ite-majority nation for more than 200 years.

In Bahrain the divide between sects is not doctrinal. Mixed marriages are common, and Sunni and Shi'ite mosques sit side by side in many areas. Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf that allows the unfettered celebration of the Shi'ite holiday that marks the martyrdom of Imam Husain, who was killed in the 7th century in a battle that marked the decisive split between the two major Islamic sects. But take a drive through any village in this tiny island nation of 730,000, of which half a million are citizens, and it's easy to spot the economic fault lines. Shi'ite villages are marked by unpainted concrete walls, potholed streets and poor lighting. Few have access to the beaches and harbors that were once the mainstay of a pre-oil boom fishing and pearling industry — massive reclamation projects have stolen the sea front. Sunni villages are well maintained, have good drainage and many even claim a small harbor or beach. Shi'ites control 30% of the economy, even though they represent 65% of the population. "It is accurate to say that the Shi'ites have a larger, disproportionate underclass compared to the Sunnis," says a Western diplomat in Manama, but "how much of it is due to what is happening now as opposed to decisions 20-30 years ago that lead to lower education rates [and higher birth rates] is difficult to assign."

When Bahrain's pro-democracy movement took off on February 14th, it was largely about constitutional reform, a goal shared by both sides of the sectarian divide. The Prime Minister, an uncle to the King, has been in power since Bahrain's independence in 1971. And while there is an elected parliament, it is overshadowed by a Shura council, which, like the prime minister, is appointed by the king, and which quashes any legislation deemed inimical to the interests of the royal family. But the authorities' deadly crackdown on the democracy demonstrations quickly changed the terms of political debate, spawning a deep sense of betrayal among the Shi'ite victims and their supporters. Demands for reform were eclipsed by calls to remove the king and the royal family, further alienating a Sunni population that sees the King as a father as much as a protector.

"The calls to remove the al-Khalifas is alienating even more Sunnis," says Sharif, referring to the name of the royal family. "I don't think these young kids really mean it — no one wants to be a republic — but they are angry and want revenge." Sharif believes that it will blow over, that once the anger subsides the two sides will be able to work together again for change, but out in the roundabout, and in Sunni enclaves as well, the mistrust and resentment has taken root.

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