Arab Uprisings Lose Luster Amid Factional Strife: World View

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad


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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