Bahrain feels heavy weight of Sunni-Shi’ite tension

September 28, 2011

(Sheikh Ali Salman, head of Shi'ite opposition party Al Wefaq, speaks during a news conference in Manama September 25, 2011, a day after Bahrain held a by-election/Hamad I Mohammed)

In the rubbish-strewn streets of Sanabis, the police are on the prowl for the culprits. A group of Shi’ite teenagers and women, some of them mothers, some of them single, scuttle into a nearby house, putting out the lights as men get out of cars and drag some boys down from a rooftop across the street.

The incriminating item is hurriedly stuffed down the back of a sofa, letting out a small noise which threatens for a few seconds to give the game away. But the danger passes. The police move on and the small plastic bugle is whipped out once more.

The vuvuzela — used here to pipe out the phrase “Down with Hamad”, Bahrain’s king — has become one of the mundane props in a game of brinkmanship between the Sunni Muslim ruling elite and majority Shi’ites who see confirmation in the daily clashes with police that they are oppressed.

“All people are doing is shouting slogans or using a bugle. But police are entering people’s houses and arresting them,” says one of the women, an unmarried government employee.

Bahrain has been in turmoil since pro-democracy protests, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets in February. But a fight that started as an attempt to foster the Gulf region’s first real democracy now often looks more like a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite, as well as a power struggle between the two powers who seek to champion them — Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The government invited Sunni neighbour Saudi Arabia to send troops to help crush the movement in March, saying the mostly Shi’ite protesters had sectarian motives and backing from Iran, but the island state has remained tense ever since.

Around 30 people died during the disturbances earlier this year, mostly Shi’ites protesters but also some police and Asian expatriates, but the figure has risen to around 40 in ongoing clashes in Shi’ite villages as government measures to calm the situation fall flat.

Read the full analysis here.


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