Bahrain’s Sunni minority has shed its reputation of steering clear of politics to emerge from the Shiite-led unrest as a community determined to preserve its stake in the Gulf state.
The pro-democracy uprising which erupted on February 14 after Arab revolts in Tunisia and Egypt toppled their long-serving strongmen was crushed on the streets of the Sunni-ruled kingdom’s capital last week.
But the threat of angry Shiites, who make up the majority, to bring down their Al-Khalifa rulers has put the Sunnis on the defensive and renewed their allegiance to the dynasty.
“There was a threat to the very existence of the Sunnis,” said prominent cleric Sheikh Abdullatif al-Mahmud, who whipped up Sunni opposition to the month-long uprising.
The cleric, who heads a newly formed National Unity Assembly (NUA), toured Sunni areas to hear the community’s grievances.
“There were (Shiite) calls to copy the model of Iraq. This is what agitated the Sunnis,” Mahmud told, in reference to the majority Shiites’ dominance in Iraq since the 2003 overthrow of president Saddam Hussein.
“The Sunnis have not become more sectarian. But the truth is that the Sunnis were shocked by the fanaticism expressed by most Shiites,” he said.
Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa warned in predominantly Sunni Turkey on Tuesday that the situation in Bahrain had turned “very dangerous.”
He voiced fears of a “division between religious communities.”
Although the Sunnis would support many of the mainstream opposition’s political demands, more radical Shiite elements stepped up demands to call for the overthrow of the monarchy.
“The opposition has adopted an aggressive approach,” he said.
The Shiites, however, insist on their Arab identity and that their links to their non-Arab neighbours in the Islamic republic across the Gulf waterway are based purely on religion.
“After February 14, the Sunnis suddenly found themselves facing a looming sectarian oppression if the regime were to be toppled and Shiites took over,” said Abdullah Hashem, a member of the hastily created NUA.
The opposition has long demanded constitutional reforms; mainly for the prime minister to be elected. But many protesters raised the stakes, calling for the kingdom to be turned into a republic.
“Today, radicalisation prevails across the Sunni community, from liberals to Islamists,” Hashem told.
He said the Sunnis wanted to establish a political movement, after the protest movement — unprecedented in the conservative Arab states of the oil-rich Gulf — had shown the Shiites to be highly organised.
The Al-Khalifa family had for decades “marginalised” Bahrain’s Sunnis, according to Hashem.
“The regime always felt that the danger would come from the Sunni side not the Shiites,” he said, referring to waves of Arab nationalism which threatened the Gulf monarchies in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Al-Khalifa dynasty, who has ruled Bahrain for more than 200 years, had Sunni anger on its side when it crushed the uprising, backed by a joint force from fellow Sunni monarchies in the Gulf.
When the protest spread from its Pearl Square camp to the central business district of Manama in the absence of police, Sunnis formed local vigilante groups.
“As police were not able to provide security, local committees were formed to protect the street,” Mahmud said.
Following reports of sectarian incidents in mixed neighbourhoods and at Bahrain University, Shiites said thugs backed by security forces were at fault; Sunnis pinned the blame on Shiite gangs bussed in to attack Sunni students.
“Sunnis are not sectarian, but the other side is. Sunnis found themselves forced to defend their very existence. We hope we will overcome this phase, but the shock is not that easy to forget,” Mahmud said.
Opposition member Matar Matar, one of 18 Shiite MPs who resigned last month in protest at police violence, acknowledged Sunni concerns but insisted they were “hugely inflated” by the authorities.
“I cannot believe that most Sunnis were in favour of the bloody action that the government chose to end the protest” at a cost of at least 15 lives, he said. Many Sunnis had backed Shiite demands for reform, he added.
“The Bahraini people want to take some power away from the ruling family. Instead of saying clearly that they do not want to give up power, the ruling family claims it’s the Sunnis who are the ones who refuse,” he said.
Hashem agreed reforms were essential. “We want to reach solutions that are accepted by all. We have an agenda that is similar to that of our Shiite brothers,” he said.