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Sects and power in the Arab revolution

By Shahram Akbarzadeh - posted Thursday, 8 September 2011

Commentary on the Arab revolution has been marked by a mix of hopeful anticipation for the triumph of democracy over tyranny and reserved trepidation about the challenge of Islamism.

There is widespread consensus that the opening up of the political space will benefit Islamist forces. Once suppressed by authoritarian regimes, Islamist forces can now use tools of public representation to gain a significant foothold in the emerging political system.

This may be most evident in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood (the most organised grassroots Islamist organisation - banned under Hosni Mubarak's rule) and a host of Salafi groups took to the central Tahrir Square to demand an Islamic constitution.


The growing assertiveness of Islamist forces is cause for concern in Israel as it puts the Israeli-Egyptian peace of 1979 under serious strain. The recent border clash which resulted in the death of five Egyptian security personnel is a bad omen.

What is new and generally less appreciated is that sectarian fissures, now opening up, threaten to drag some existing states into a cul du sac of chaos and violence.It is clear that with the opening up of the political space in the Arab states, Israel could find itself even more marginalised because of its refusal to allow sovereignty for the Palestinians. This is a challenging situation, but it is very much within the domain of state affairs and international relations. The problem may be hard to resolve, but it is not a novel challenge to the international community.

This is emerging as a critical factor in Syria where the ruling regime represents the Alawite minority, a form of Shi'a sect that deviates from the dominant Sunni belief in Islam. Any form of political openness would allow the Sunni majority which constitute around 90 per cent of the population to wrest power from Alawites.

This explains the ferocity of the state response against popular calls for political accountability. Bashar al-Assad feels he has no room to concede anything. This is a zero-sum game, and the experience of revolution in other Arab states has convinced him that any attempt at reconciliation will be seen as a sign of weakness and exploited to depose him and his Alawite allies from power.

A similar dynamic seems to be at play in Bahrain, where the Al-Khalifa Sunni kingdom rules over the Shi'a majority. When faced with the growing tide of popular demand for political openness the Al-Khalifa regime sought help from Saudi Arabia to keep the situation under control.

In March 2011 security forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates entered Bahrain to deal with unrest - an action sanctioned by the Gulf Cooperation Council. The same GCC had endorsed Saddam Hussein's war efforts against Shi'a Iran between 1980 and 1988.


There is little to suggest that the popular swell of early 2011 in Bahrain was inspired by sectarian motivations. But the heavy handed response and the regional mobilisation to snuff it out have certainly put the events in an unmistakable sectarian light.

The Saudi reaction highlighted the ease with which the sectarian factor in one state could embroil neighbouring states into the fray. The use of Saudi and UAE security forces was duly criticised by the two Shi'a regimes in the Persian Gulf. Iran and Iraq criticised the GCC for interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain and suppressing a popular movement for change.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime's protest, when it has shown no mercy to its own political opponents, the shared Iranian and Iraqi position points to a larger issue. The position of Saudi Arabia as a regional heavyweight is being challenged, most forcefully by Iran and its version of Islamic revolution. This regional rivalry threatens to reinforce latent sectarian divisions and derail the Arab revolution.

Suddenly, the unfolding events in the Arab world are not simply about finding a path to democracy and political openness, but a maze of sectarian tensions and regional power-plays.

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This article was first published in Eureka Street on September 7, 2011

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About the Author

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Professor of Asian Politics (Middle East & Central Asia) at the University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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