In just the last few days, there have been an alarming series of escalations in Bahrain, where tensions are simmering in advance of a scheduled Formula One event April 20. On Monday, youth protestors booby-trapped a roadblock with a petrol bomb. When it exploded, it injured half a dozen police. The AP is now reporting that Sunni mobs attacked Shia villages last night in retaliation. This morning, several homemade bombs are said to have gone off in schools in several Shia villages.
Bahrain has been locked in conflict for the last year, since police cracked down on Arab Spring-inspired Shia-led protests in the small island country. The protests and the government response have since ebbed and flowed. But there is one thing that has remained constant until now: there have been very few (and very infrequent) instances of violent confrontation between Sunni and Shia groups. Until this week, that is.
It's too early to call this a trend, but it isn't too early to worry. There is a lot of anger in the air in Bahrain right now, as I saw for myself last week. It's a miracle of restraint and a testament to the protestors that it hasn't erupted for these last 14 months. If the violence does deteriorate into direct clashes, it would set back any hopes of resolving the political détente there by leaps and bounds. Distrust between the two communities is already palpable.
These latest incidents were clearly enough to cause alarm in foreign embassies; the United States has issued a statement condemning violence and calling for a continuation of government reforms. It will be interesting to see what the Formula One committee thinks—and more importantly, the teams, many of whom have already expressed reservations about holding the event there next weekend.
One of the incidents earlier this week--in which the Jawad Supermarket was trashed by a civilian mob--seems to have taken place with either the help or complicity of the police. Security footage from the scene shows looters entering and trashing the store (first three minutes), followed by a police appearance (around the 3 minute mark.) The security forces make no attempt to detain or stop the looting; they merely point to the security camera and shoo people out. They take a few drinks for themselves (a few officers are seen with cold waters). Around the 6 minute mark, and officer films the now-destroyed store, while a thug bashes in the Jawad surveillance camera.
This is part of a larger phenomenon--seemingly on the rise--of economic sectarianism. Many Sunni no longer frequent the businesses that supported the mainly-Shia protestors last year (either directly or indirectly) in Pearl Roundabout. When I talked to security analyst Matthew Hardemen of RTI Foresnics in Manama last week, he elaborated:
Economic sectarianism and retribution is nothing new in Bahrain. Shia-owned businesses in Sunni areas were forced to close not long after the protests began. But the fact that the current environment now dictates whether Bahrainis will buy coffee at Costa with their fellow Shia or Starbucks with fellow Sunnis is hardly encouraging. Boycotts of Shia or Sunni-owned businesses are increasingly prevalent, friendships have been severed and campuses torn down the middle. A few hold out. Intra-sectarian marriages stand as pretty much the last outposts of civility, though they too are increasingly rare and have also come under immense strain. It gives you an idea of just how unrelenting and deep the divide has become.
Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English