Bahrain’s majority Shiites are embittered that the outside world has ignored their brutally crushed demands for a greater say in the country’s affairs for sectarian reasons and their alleged links to Iran.
“The case of Bahrain is a great example of international hypocrisy,” said former opposition MP Matar Matar, expressing the view of many in the Shiite community of the kingdom, which is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.
Shiites say authorities were able to put down their month-long protest with impunity last spring simply because the youths who camped on Pearl Square were Shiites and that the democracy rallies were perceived abroad as an Iranian plot.
“The people responded to a situation in the Arab world,” said former Shiite MP Hadi al-Moussawi, as protesters return to the streets in smaller numbers after a heavy-handed clampdown in which 35 people were killed and scores arrested.
But the “sectarian angle” was the main reason for the lack of solidarity across the Arab world, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Centre.
“There has been a widespread perception that the Bahrain uprising is Shiite… You do see a striking lack of solidarity with the Bahrain opposition,” he said.
The uprising marked a divergence in Arab opinion over the pro-democracy protests.
Sunnis eyed the movement with suspicion, while Shiites in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran supported the protests.
The Sunni-Shiite rift over the Arab Spring grew wider when protests reached Syria.
Sunnis loudly supported their co-religionists in their struggle against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite Shiite offshoot.
But Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah denounced the uprising as an alliance between radical Sunni Islamists and the West to bring down a regime whose lifeline extends to Tehran.
And Iraq’s Shiite-led government shied away from punitive measures adopted by the Arab League against Damascus.
In March, leading Sunni cleric Yusef al-Qaradawi dismissed Bahrain’s uprising as a “sectarian revolution, not like other revolutions” in the Arab world, insisting it was a “Shiite uprising against the Sunnis.”
When a delegation from Al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s main Shiite formation, visited Egypt in October to seek support for their political demands, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar, the main centre of Sunni Islam, reportedly evaded receiving them.
Abdullatif al-Mahmud, who heads the National Unity Assembly that rallied Sunnis around the government, said the uprising evoked Sunni fears of becoming underdogs like the minority Sunni Arabs in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was ousted.
“The Sunnis are now in a state of self-defence,” the Sunni cleric told AFP, adding that had the government not reacted “the same as in Iraq would have happened.”
Western powers, especially the United States, also failed to support the Bahraini uprising as they did with protests in other Arab nations, calling at best on the monarchy to refrain from using excessive force and introduce reforms.
“Democratic and liberation slogans go silent when it comes to Bahrain,” said Matar.
He cited common strategic interests prompting Washington and the West to stand by the regime of Bahrain, including the presence of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as well as the security of oil supplies.
“The Obama administration put itself on the wrong side of history… Bahrain was the most difficult test for the US support to democracy, and it failed,” said Hamid.
But he said Washington’s position, along with that of other Western powers, was “not surprising” given concerns over Iran’s ambitions, while pointing out that “no one has provided a shred of evidence that mainstream opposition” was a puppet of Tehran.
Bahrain Shiite opposition has all along been accused of being linked to Iran, aiming to copy its system of Wilayat al-Faqih, or the rule of the jurist, a charge the opposition categorically deny.
“Most Shiites here follow jurists that do not believe in the (Iranian) system of Wilayat al-Faqih,” said Moussawi.
“Give people democracy and equality in institutions, and forget about Wilayat al-Faqih,” he added, insisting the Shiites of Bahrain are loyal to their Arab nation.
In stressing their belonging to Bahrain and willingness to cohabit with the Sunni royal family, Shiites recall how jubilant villagers carried King Hamad in his car when he visited Sitra following a 98.4-percent vote in favour of a national charter for reform in 2001.
“We are still accused of links to Iran, although we voted in the early 1970s to be an Arab state, not Persian” said Moussawi, recalling a UN poll following dispute between Iran and Britain over Bahrain’s future.