* Bahrain Shi'ites led uprising last year, protests continue
* Sunnis opposed to dialogue raise rhetoric against Shi'ites
* Many Sunni groups say they have reform demands too
By Andrew Hammond
MANAMA, April 5 Bahrain's Sunni Muslim minority,
fearful of Shi'ite political assertiveness, is spawning factions
that rail against compromise with the island's sectarian
majority, while nursing their own grudges against its Sunni
The emergence of hardline Sunni groups is further evidence
of sectarian polarisation in Bahrain, where a Shi'ite-led
opposition movement persists despite the crushing of the mass
protests it organised during last year's burst of Arab revolts.
Shi'ite reformists want an and to the Al Khalifa family's
monopoly on political and economic power. Some radicals have
demanded the monarchy be scrapped in favour of a republic.
The loyalist Sunni backlash, once seen as a card played by
the authorities, may now upset even any royal hopes of opening a
dialogue to calm a conflict that has shredded Bahrain's social
cohesion and cost its tourism- and banking-based economy dearly.
While Sunni hardliners are divided among themselves, some
have begun to articulate grievances about corruption, access to
housing, and suspected government efforts to alter Bahrain's
demography that mirror those of the Shi'ites they revile.
Sunni voices have clamoured for the government to resist the
pressure of opposition rallies, clashes with riot police and
quiet Western prodding for a resolution.
In social media, Shi'ites and protesters are attacked as
"monkeys", "traitors" and "followers of Iran", picking up a
frequent charge that politicised Shi'ites are pawns of the
Islamic Republic, a large non-Arab, Shi'ite Gulf neighbour.
In the northern, mainly Sunni, district of Muharraq, al
Qaeda slogans are among the graffiti on some walls and a large
poster outside a Sunni Islamist party's headquarters depicts a
donkey with the caption: "I'm going to dialogue!"
Hardcore Sunnis are alarmed by talks that the powerful royal
court minister has held in recent weeks with the leading Shi'ite
party Wefaq and secular opposition groups on a possible dialogue
to halt turmoil that has deterred investors and slowed economic
growth to 2.2 percent last year from 4.5 percent in 2010.
"The worst thing is happening now in Bahrain, that the state
is flirting with the followers of the Safavids," wrote Sunni
Islamist Mohammed Khalid on Twitter, using the name of a 16th
century Persian dynasty to refer to Iran and Shi'ites. "The
Sunnis are on the point of exploding."
Host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain has remained turbulent
in the year since the authorities quelled Shi'ite-led protests
that erupted after popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Daily
street protests and clashes have caused continuing casualties.
The conflict drew in regional players. Saudi Arabia sent in
troops to back the government, while Iranian media provide a
soapbox to Shi'ites mostly excluded from Gulf-owned Arab
A senior Western diplomat voiced concern about the
apparently widening Sunni-Shi'ite rift in Bahrain.
"People moving from the middle ground into the certainty of
sectarianism is a challenge," the diplomat said. "A lot of
voices are for retribution not reconciliation, though I think
they are still a minority of Sunni voices."
With the Shi'ite street behind them, opposition parties tend
to view the Sunni hardline groups - who include some Shi'ite
Arab nationalists - as noise created by the government that
could easily be silenced in the event of a deal.
But some wonder whether the Sunnis can still be manipulated
so easily - and whether they could start pushing harder for
reforms themselves, despite their fear of Shi'ite numerical
strength in a more democratic political system.
Abdulhalim Murad, a Sunni lawmaker of the Salafi Asala
party, says Sunni anger is running too high to tolerate any
concessions to Wefaq, a well-organised political machine that
has won almost half the seats in previous parliaments.
"If all parties are serious about entering a dialogue, I
think everybody should stop violence in the street. Those people
(Shi'ites) are trying to murder policemen," Murad said.
"It's obvious they are trying to harm the economy to
pressure the government," he said, warning of a possible violent
response if Wefaq gained cabinet seats in the current climate.
Sunni vigilantes attacked a Shi'ite religious procession
during the Ashura commemoration in December and a protester was
shot dead last week by an unknown assailant.
So far the Sunni "opposition to the opposition", as its
critics dub it, has struggled to maintain unity.
Shortly after the protests erupted in February 2011, an
umbrella organisation called the National Unity Gathering
emerged, headed by a Sunni cleric, in a state-backed effort to
create a mass movement to challenge the protesters.
But the main organised Sunni parties, Asala and Minbar, an
ideological affiliate of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, pulled out
amid personality disputes and disagreements over leadership.
"It's the first time the Sunnis have been mobilised but they
don't know what they want. All they agree on is that they are
opposed to the opposition," said Ala'a Shehabi, an opposition
activist. "That's not enough to unify them as a group."
'NOT A GAME'
Surpassing the Gathering is the Fateh Awakening, a new
Brotherhood-linked youth group feted in state and pro-government
media. It drew 30,000 people to a Manama rally in February at
which speakers attacked Gulf Arab Shi'ites as pawns of Iran.
Anas Bomtaia, spokesman for the Sunni group, denied it was
doing the bidding of the authorities.
"I'm not a game in the hand of government or anyone else.
Some senior government figures tried to buy us but we didn't
accept a penny," he said, adding Wefaq should "apologise" for
provoking a sectarian split with the Feb. 14 uprising. "We have
rejected dialogue and that shows we are against the government."
Sunni politicians list demands that also come up at Wefaq
rallies, including a greater say for Bahrainis in a system now
dominated by the royal family. An uncle of the king has held the
post of prime minister for more than four decades.
"We think that the government is not serious about fighting
corruption - administrative and moral corruption," said Bomtaia,
referring to the phenomenon of migrant prostitution. "We said
there has to be equality between us all and the Khalifa family."
The Salafis agree they share some interests with Shi'ites.
"We have a lot of requirements in common. They are living
with us, this is the reality. We all live in the same land,"
said Murad. Acknowledging a key opposition grievance, he also
said there had been a degree of "political naturalisation".
Shi'ites often accuse the authorities of granting foreigners
from predominantly Sunni countries nationality to shift the
sectarian balance. Protesters say riot police contain an
increasing number of Pakistanis and non-Bahraini Arabs.
The government denies any sectarian naturalisation policy.
Some analysts question its commitment to dialogue, arguing
that the emergence of the Gathering, the Awakening and others is
a state effort to multiply the voices raised against the
Wefaq-led opposition, which includes some Sunnis and secular
"I would be surprised if this dialogue being discussed now
will ever have representatives of all groups in the same room,"
said Justin Gengler, a Doha-based researcher on Bahrain.
"Sunnis and Shi'ites making demands at the same time for
substantive changes and concessions - that's not something the
authorities are prepared for."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)