Arab Uprisings Lose Luster Amid Factional Strife: World View
July 25 (Bloomberg) -- Throughout the recent Arab uprisings, one of the most widely expressed fears voiced by regional commentators has been that sectarian conflict might overwhelm the lofty ideals expressed by activists.
Those worries are more than hypothetical now. Media in the region are full of reports of fighting along factional lines as various strands of Islam battle for control alongside tribal and secular elements in Yemen, Sunnis and Christians attack each other in Egypt, and 30 die in a sectarian killing spree in the central city of Homs in Syria. Commentators are debating who is to blame and where it will lead.
Addressing the bloodletting in Homs, Husam Itani, a columnist in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, wrote, “The opposition cannot be blamed for using the regime’s massive mistakes," a reference to violence, "since this is the primary and simplest role of political action. But on the other hand, one cannot disregard the sectarian dimension that the regime is trying to attribute to the uprising, and the slide of some who consider themselves to be oppositionists down that path.”
Echoing the view of a number of commentators sympathetic to the Syrian protestors, Itani wrote, "change should either be in the direction of a state that treats all its citizens equally and rejects sectarianism, denominationalism and all their offshoots or it should not happen."
However columnist Iyad al-Duleimi, writing in the Qatari-based Al-Arab daily, had a different view of which side was to blame for the factional fighting and of its seriousness. “Since the first moment of the people’s revolution," he wrote, "the Syrian regime tried to play the tune of sectarianism, and Syrian television, as well as the official media affiliated with the regime, was filled with talk about conspiracies and conspirators,” especially fingering Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The Syrian regime is dominated by Alawites, a religious minority.
“But this broken record no longer convinces anyone,” al-Duleimi said. The “facts” indicate the regime “introduced its thugs and supporters” to many areas that witnessed demonstrations; there, they tried to whip up disputes between community members on a sectarian basis.
The campaign failed, the author asserted. Brushing off reports of attacks based on religious identity, al-Duleimi said the Syrian people have shown “a great level of cohesion and patriotism for this great country and were successfully able to thwart all these attempts at incitement and to place the regime in a narrow corner.”
Referring to the ruling party, he added, “the Syrian Baath regime’s turn toward the sectarian weapon clearly proves it is feeling threatened and that its end has moved close.”
Columnist Yasir al-Za’atirah of the pro-monarchy, Jordan-based daily Ad-Dustour, wrote about the sectarian nature of the larger, regional conflicts in the Middle East, specifically between countries allied with Shiite Iran versus those allied with Sunni Saudi Arabia and thus the U.S.
“It is obvious that Iran sees Syria not only as a political ally but also as a sectarian ally,” he wrote, since the Syrian regime is largely led by Alawites who are considered closer in doctrine to Shiites than to Sunnis.
Al-Za'atirah pointed out that choosing sides based just on the Shiite-Sunni split can lead to inconsistencies. Earlier this year, Shiites in Bahrain, who are a majority, pressed for reform and were put down by the Sunni-dominated government, with the help of Saudi forces. Syria, Iran and the militant Shiite Lebanese party Hezbollah supported the Shiite protesters. This exposed what al-Za'atirah called a “flagrant contradiction." In a reverse of the situation in Bahrain, Syria has a majority Sunni population but is ruled by a minority Alawite regime.
Eliding the implications for his own country, Jordan, where the Hashemite monarchy has long played on sectarian and ethnic divisions, especially between Bedouins whose ancestors originated in Jordan and the majority of citizens whose roots are Palestinian, he wrote, “We reject the sectarian logic.”
We support the rights of the Shiites in Bahrain and elsewhere. But what Iran is doing in Syria is rejected. Today Iran throws all its weight behind the Syrian regime, but it forgets that this will mobilize the Arab and (Sunni) Islamic street against it and fan the flames of sectarian wars.
Yasir al-Za’atirah, in his column, included a note of caution about criticism of Iran, warning that governments often use it as a way of distracting their constituents' attention. “It should be said that the priority for those who mobilize against Iran is to get their people to stop demanding reform and focus instead on confronting the ‘Safawi’ project,” he said, using a derogatory term for Shiites. Trying to use Iran in this way, al-Za'atirah wrote, actually undermines legitimate resistance to Iranian ambitions and feeds sectarian conflict, in the process undercutting prospects for political reform in the Arab world.
In Bahrain itself, where fresh protests took place July 22 after the main Shiite parliamentary bloc pulled out of reconciliation talks with the Sunni monarchy, columnist Ali Mohsen al-Warkaa, writing in Al-Wasat, a paper aligned with the opposition, warned flatly that sectarian divisions threatened to "tear up" the country in coming months.
As violent factionalism becomes a growing force in the Mideast, calls like al-Warkaa’s -- and those of Facebook groups like one in Kuwait titled “If you are sectarian, please do not add me” -- were struggling to be heard.
(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)
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