Arab Autumn: Elections, Crackdowns, and Sectarian Tensions Part III

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Bahrain and Syria are countries ruled by sectarian minorities. Bahrain’s Sunni royal family rules over a Shia majority whereas the Assad regime, which rules over a Sunni majority, belongs to the tiny Alawite sect. While this division has exacerbated both of the uprisings, the similarities end here. Bahrain’s royal family has reacted to the protests through a combination of force and negotiation, whereas Assad, who lacks the same degree of popular legitimacy, has sought the brutal repression of the opposition movement.

Bahrain. Despite attempts by Bahrain’s monarchy to engage the predominantly Shia opposition through a National Dialogue last summer, protests have escalated in recent weeks. Special elections—held on September 24 to elect 18 parliamentarians after members of the leading opposition party, al-Wefaq, resigned last February—sparked outrage from demonstrators. Al-Wefaq boycotted the elections, resulting in only half of the seats being filled. A week later, a second round of elections was held to fill the remaining seats. On October 9, parliament joined for its opening session.

Earlier this month, Bahrain’s government took the initial step in implementing the recommendations of the National Dialogue, including strengthening the parliament’s powers, improving transparency, attacking money laundering and other illegal activities, and improving services for citizens.

However, last week, five Shia opposition groups issued the so-called “Manama Document,” which calls for an electoral overhaul whereby elected representatives would govern and the ruling family would preside as a figurehead. The document further calls for constituencies to be redrawn, the creation of an independent commission for administering the election process, and a fair and impartial judicial system.

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These demands however, are a far cry from those called for by al-Wefaq’s predecessors in 1979. Those demands included the establishment of sharia law, priority employment to Muslims, the imposition of Islamic dress for women, and the ban of alcohol.

The opposition movement has used the momentum generated by other “Arab Spring” protest movements, calling for more democratic system of governance. However, Bahrain’s government insists that protestors are being influenced by Iran, whose operatives have incited violence and promoted extremist ideology.

Indeed, Iran is infamous for meddling in Bahraini politics. For the past three decades, Iran has repeatedly sought to overthrow Bahrain’s monarchy as it did with a coup attempt in 1981. Iran’s aggressive presence in the region poses an existential threat to Bahrain’s progressive society. Many Bahrainis recall Ayatollah’s Khomeini’s overthrow of the shah in 1979 and fear the erosion of their way of life.

The demonstrations in Bahrain put the United States in an awkward position. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Manama, and Bahrain is a crucial partner in monitoring and protecting the Persian Gulf sea lanes, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports are transported. The Obama Administration has condemned the government’s disproportionate use of force against protestors but has also allowed Bahrain flexibility in deterring Iranian influence.

Syria. Last March, Syrians joined the wave of anti-government protests sweeping across the Middle East, calling on the regime to introduce reforms. President Bashar al-Assad belatedly and grudgingly lifted the decades-old emergency law but nevertheless continued the regime’s violent attacks on peaceful demonstrators.

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Apart from Libya, no other Arab Spring country has experienced the depth of brutality that Syrians have this year. According to the United Nations, over 3,000 have been killed by regime security forces in the past six months.

Syria’s uprising is complicated by the country’s longstanding sectarian divisions. The Assad family, the country’s elite, and the top military leaders belong to the Alawite sect, a privileged and resented minority in a majority Sunni country. The regime’s crackdown on the opposition movement has stirred Alawite fears that if demonstrators are successful in dethroning the regime, they will face reprisals.

Levying pressure on the Assad regime, the international community has attempted to isolate it. Last May, the U.S. imposed a series of sanctions aimed at crippling the regime’s financial network, and in August, the European Union levied sanctions against the Commercial Bank of Syria, also sanctioned by U.S. in August.

The Arab League also met last weekend to discuss Syria’s potential suspension and called for a “national dialogue” between the regime and the opposition, which the Assad regime immediately rejected.

The Assad regime has viciously attacked unarmed protestors, who are viewed as a threat that must be eliminated. In response to the regime’s violence, the opposition movement has increasingly retaliated. In suburbs of Damascus, Homs, and along the Turkish border, all signs indicate the emergence of a protracted armed struggle. Military vehicle convoys and roadblocks have been targeted by anti-government insurgents, and violent clashes between opposing forces have resulted in dozens of deaths.

The current stalemate is unsustainable. Although the Assad regime retains the advantage with a well-equipped and loyal military officer corps dominated by Alawites, the Syrian army has been hit hard by desertions of Sunni soldiers, who make up the bulk of the lower ranks. The violence is likely to continue as long as Assad rejects any effort to limit his power, and it could soon lead to an all-out civil war.

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