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In Bahrain, The Sunnis Complain About The Shi'a

From The New York Times, February 18, 2011:

Bahrain’s Sunnis Defend Monarchy

MANAMA, Bahrain — Not everyone wants democracy, or sympathizes with the popular protests crashing across the Middle East.

Not here, anyway, where the ruling elite protect a way of life for a minority Sunni population that fears and resents the political demands of the Shiite-dominated opposition. [there are about 500,000-600,000 Bahraini citizens, with a million more wage-slave foreigners in Bahrain. Of those citizens, only 30% are Sunni, that is fewer than 200,000 people].

Changing a political system, by necessity, means there will be winners and losers, a reality that has sent a chill through parts of the Sunni community here after days of protest by those seeking to alter the status quo in this small country. Their resistance to change may help explain why the government seems confident that it can retain enough public support to carry out the ruthless suppression of the protests that it began on Thursday.

“I don’t want a democracy,” said Rayyah Mohammed, 32, an art project director and strong supporter of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. “I want a monarchy. I like how things are. I have a job. I have a house. I have free health care.”

Bahrain is gripped in what its citizens see as an existential political battle, where the leadership insists on preserving an absolute monarchy and the opposition is demanding a new constitution and elected parliament.

For the most part, the protesters are widely regarded as the good guys in a battle against uncompromising rulers willing to use lethal force to preserve their domain. But there is another world here, one populated by those who have benefited from an order that they see as a guardian against the kind of compromise, inevitable in a democracy, that might work against their interests. They see their leaders as protecting their freedom, while they see democracy as perhaps imposing on them demands they do not want to meet.

This is especially true in a place like Bahrain, which is divided along sectarian lines and politics is often regarded as a zero-sum game — if Sunnis win, then Shiites lose, in a community where sectarian identification trumps national identity.

“We are pro-government, we are pro-king, we don’t want what they want,” said Ahmed Zainal, 27, a public relations executive.

When the protests began, on Monday, a group of young professionals — a public relations director, an art curator, a banker and an educator — asked to have their voices heard as to why they supported the king and rejected the protesters. They were Ms. Mohammed, the curator; Mr. Zainal, the public relations executive; Bashayer Ali, 31, a banker; and Suhaib Abdullah, 25, a graduate student assistant. Ms. Ali’s father is a Shiite, and the rest are Sunni.

During 90 minutes over coffee in a street-side cafe in the city, they offered a critical counterpoint to the protesters. While the Shiites see themselves as discriminated against and marginalized, these children of the upper middle class said the Shiites were largely responsible for their own plight, a position that seemed to overlook established patterns of discrimination in Bahrain. They said that what the demonstrators wanted was not democracy, but superiority.

They blamed the Shiites for having too many children, for not being willing to work hard and for demanding handouts from the government. “Whose fault is it when you have five or six kids and you can’t afford two?” Ms. Mohammed asked. “Why is that the government’s fault?”

Mr. Zainal was equally critical. “Plain and simple,” he said. “The uneducated people of Bahrain, or the world, you have kids to support and you pull the kids out of school to sell water at the roadside, you cannot blame the government.”

“The educated,” he said, “understand the value of keeping their children in school.”

The four made their comments before a police attack on Pearl Square, which left at least five dead and dozens injured, at a time when it appeared that the protesters might be gaining the upper hand. They said they resented seeing the narrative of Bahrain, a country they love, being written by the demonstrators, and they accused them of hiding sectarian goals behind democratic slogans.

They said, for example, that they were offended that the Shiite-led opposition had called for the protests to begin on an important Sunni holiday, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, which begins at sundown.

It’s very sectarian,” Ms. Mohammed said.

All four acknowledged that they lived relatively comfortable lives, but said that was because they and their parents had worked hard. They saw the protests as a personal affront, a demand for a handout. “The people in that circle are not very well educated,” Ms. Ali said.

On Thursday night, Ms. Mohammed said that she and her friends were disturbed by the events of the night before, when the police stormed Pearl Square, and that they had sympathy and empathy for those who were injured and killed.

But a day earlier, when the opposition was reveling in the square and demanding that the government offer concessions, she said she did not accept their version of why their lives were difficult. She and the others said they believed that the protesters were more loyal to Iran than to Bahrain, a frequent charge — rejected by Shiite Bahrainis — that is leveled against Shiites as a justification for blocking their path to power. Shiites are largely barred from the police force, for example, and from the military.

In the looking-glass world of this group, a police force staffed by foreigners is preferable to a police force staffed by Shiite citizens. They also said they feared a Shiite government might be too religious and impose restrictions on society.

To me,” Ms. Mohammed said, “it’s about preserving my freedom.”

 


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