Many pundits and government officials have praised the “Arab Spring” as a prelude to the rise of a new and more democratic Middle East. But it is difficult to reconcile this notion with the images of growing intersectarian violence within the region, such as the recent anti-Shiite attacks perpetrated in the course of the celebration of the Shiite Ashura festival on December 5 and 6. The event, a traditional catalyst for intersectarian violence, served as a powerful reminder that identity politics continue to play a major role in the region.
Indeed, these Arab uprisings, while fueled by widespread desires for more freedom at the grassroots level, demonstrate that preexisting religious identities were never abandoned in favor of new national ones and that Middle Eastern politics are still very much based on group affiliation and identity politics.
As the region undergoes massive political and social unrest, these preexisting divisions seem to be heightened rather than lessened. Still, they have been taking different forms: from a growing religious-secular divide in Tunisia and Egypt to clan-based tensions in Libya and Yemen to a general worsening in the majority-minority relationship across the region. But one of the most important preexisting cleavages emerging to shape the Arab Spring is the Shiite-Sunni conflict.
In other words, the Arab Spring has deepened preexisting divisions in ethnically and religiously heterogeneous countries within the Middle East. These interethnic identities and loyalties have shaped the ongoing social and political struggle, notwithstanding that the initial protests centered on socio-economic grievances. In fact, the vaguely defined demands of the protests, the lack of cohesive civil societies and the obvious difficulties that the regimes face in responding to demands have all led to situations in which protest movements are increasingly resorting to sectarian identities as a means to promote cohesion and unity of purpose. This, in turn, carries a tremendously high potential to spur internal violence and threaten local and regional stability, especially in states with a delicate ethnic fabric.
The case of Syria offers an example. There the ruling Alawite minority (which rightly or wrongly as been identified with the Shiites) is facing growing protests, mainly from the Sunni. Meanwhile, other ethno-religious minorities within Syria, such as the Christians and the Kurds, have been mostly at the margins of the protests. Although they feared backlash against their communities, they now reportedly are starting to arm themselves. This ongoing sectarian strife in Syria also heightens the already high level of tensions between the region’s Sunni and Shiite communities, particularly in neighboring Lebanon. Thus, ethnic and religious cleavages have not been subdued by the Arab Spring. Rather, a mix of identity and geostrategic politics has contributed to deepening preexisting divisions.
Bahrain is another example. The unrest there is fueled by serious sectarian discrimination against the Shiite majority. The achievements of the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon and the rising status of Iran may have sparked the political awakening and increasing socio-political demands among Shiites in Bahrain. And the king’s repeated attempts over the years to contain the protests by allowing greater Shiite participation in the political process have not soothed Shiite sensibilities. Actually, they have made the demonstrations more frequent and severe.
The same predicament also applies to Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh's view, these protests represent a serious threat that is part of a larger Iranian plot to incite the Shiite communities to insurrection. In this context, the beginning of the Syrian protests indeed represented a true watershed in the development of the Arab Spring.
Before the Syrian uprising, it appeared that the fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt would benefit the "Shiite Crescent" led by Iran. But the Sunni camp in general and Saudi Arabia specifically received a golden opportunity when the protests spread to Syria. Turning its back on Assad and on the post-2008 process of Syrian-Saudi reconciliation, the Saudis now wish to see him overthrown, as this would result in both Iran loosing a major regional ally and Saudi Arabia enlarging and strengthening its own Sunni camp. In Saudi Arabia’s view, if Assad fell, Iran would return to its “natural” size. This would be a positive development for the Sunni camp, second only to the fall of the Islamic Republic itself.
The Saudis never stopped thinking of the Shiites as an internal as well as external security problem because of their geographical and ideological proximity to Iran and the Saudi need to protect its huge oil reserves. These Saudi fears were heightened recently when the Shiite community rose up in arms against the regime in October, hinting at a shift in the relationship between them and the Sunni royals.
In Yemen, the new government will have to confront a host of internal threats to the country’s stability. Since the start of the current wave of unrest, the Shiite rebels have sought to take advantage of the power vacuum by expanding the areas under their influence. In practice, they now control the entire Sa’dah Governorate as well as extensive areas along the border with Saudi Arabia. One of their goals is to gain access to the Red Sea and thus secure weapons-supply routes from Iran. This threatens not just to escalate the internal civil war within Yemen but also to draw in more outside forces. Yemen could thus become another battlefield in the war for regional hegemony.
These developments suggest that the 2009–2010 Saudi military intervention against the Shiite-Houthis on its border with Yemen might not have been the isolated occurrence many assumed.
In Iraq, the forthcoming U.S. withdrawal is seen by some Iraqi Sunnis as an invitation for Shiite Iran to become more involved in Iraq. Recent events in Syria could heighten these concerns because the possible collapse of the Assad regime and the rise to power of a Sunni-dominated regime could increase Iranian involvement in Iraq in order to counterbalance the loss of an ally. Although the Arab Spring has yet to arrive in Iraq, the growing unrest at the regional level has so far had a negative impact on sectarian relations within the country, with both sects appearing to take a more confrontational approach vis-à-vis the other.
Most worrisome is the possibility that these trends could explode into a much larger geostrategic and political divide between two blocks—Iran and its "Radical Axis" versus Saudi Arabia and/or Turkey constituting a "Sunni camp."
Scholars and decision makers are still struggling to understand the complexities of this ongoing turmoil, in particular the Sunni-Shiite division. In this sense, developments within Syria are paramount since the fall of Assad could increase sectarian Sunni-Shiite tensions both within Syria and across the region.
Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former member of Israel's National
Security Council. Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the coauthor of Hamas and Hezbollah: a Comparative Study (John Hopkins University Press, 2012).