Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Arab Spring's Violent Turn

    Thursday, December 15, 2011   No comments

by Yoel Guzansky, Benedetta Berti

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.


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