The crackdown here has won a tactical and perhaps ephemeral victory through torture, arrests, job dismissals and the blunt tool of already institutionalized discrimination against the island’s Shiite Muslim majority. In its wake, sectarian tension has exploded, economic woes have deepened, American willingness to look the other way has cast Washington as hypocritical and a society that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism is colliding with its most primordial instincts. Taken together, the repression and warnings of radicalization may underline an emerging dictum of the Arab uprisings: violence begets violence.
“The situation is a tinderbox, and anything could ignite it at any moment,” the head of Al Wefaq, the largest opposition group, tells him. “If we can’t succeed in bringing democracy to this country, then our country is headed toward violence. Is it in a year or two years? I don’t know. But that’s the reality.”
The most dangerous development, says Shadid, is the deliberate cultivation of sectarian hatred.
“No one claims that Sunnis and Shiites ever lived in harmony here,” he writes. “But the country stands as a singular example of the way venerable distinctions of ethnicity, sect and history can be manipulated in the Arab world, often cynically, in the pursuit of power.”
The authorities have consciously stoked sectarian tensions and publicly invited citizens to identify and expose pro-democracy activists as “traitors” during the recent mass arrests and dismissals, said Solidarity Center director Shawna Bader-Blau, in a recent discussion of the fault lines in Bahrain (above).
The regime has also targeted the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which participated in the broad-based coalition of civil society groups calling for political reform, and which remained a bastion of non-sectarianism. The GFTU is one of the founding members of a new Arab Democratic Trade Union Forum launched this week. The grouping aims to counter the authoritarian legacy of the region’s labor relations system in which unions have often been government-controlled or used as instruments of the ruling party.
“The independent trade union movement finds itself facing new historical responsibilities that require it to be closer to the grassroots,” the new forum insists. “Committed to transparency and democracy in internal union affairs, the democratic Arab trade union movement wants to play a leading and effective role in enacting the laws of democratic transition.”
The Solidarity Center is one of the core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.