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Preventing Sunni-Shiite Schism From Hijacking the Arab Spring

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In April of this year, I wrote that the upheaval in Syria (the Sunni majority revolt against the Alawite-dominated regime) has turned into a battleground between the Sunni axis led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the Shiite axis led by Iran. As events continue to unfold in the region, particularly the Sunni Islamists' monopolization of the political processes in new Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia plus the belligerent Saudi-Iranian exchange in Syria and Bahrain, what is increasingly visible is that the liberal, democracy-seeking Arab Spring is being hijacked by radical Islamists on both sides, risking major conflagration between the two pillars of Islam.

The dispute between Sunnis (who make up the vast majority of the world's Muslims) and Shiites is not faith-related, but is rather essentially about how the Caliph can be appointed and the nature of political power that religious scholars should have. Because, much like Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, with theology intertwined with geopolitics, the conflict was sustained for a millennium from the seventh to the seventeenth century and witnessed the conflict between the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Persia and the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in Turkey. It was not until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) culminating with the Iraq war in 2003 that the relationship between the Arab world and Iran was again re-framed in the context of the Sunni-Shiite schism. The emergence of a Shiite government in post-Saddam Iraq, discriminating against its Sunni citizens, and the ensuing Sunni insurgency terrorizing the Shiite majority only added fuel to the fire. The high hopes accompanying the advent of the Arab Spring that the youth uprising would make a smooth transition to a liberal democracy are gradually fading away.

After the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt won a decisive victory in the country's first free elections, it fielded a presidential candidate and the legislature it dominated drafted a law that is restructuring the Supreme Constitutional Court in a way that gives parliament greater control over its affairs. Being the best-financed and organized group, chances are that the MB is likely to successfully monopolize the political process. A rational MB, one might argue, could make some concessions and employ a cautious approach, but even this restrains the MB in introducing real political freedoms because of two major factors: 1) the reluctance of the old guard of the MB to democratize lest they lose a historical opportunity to transform Egypt into the model Islamic state; and 2) the competition with the ultra-conservative Salafist -- unexpectedly ranked second in the parliament -- whose challenge of the MB's religious credentials forced it to talk about how and when they will implement Sharia law.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring gave Shiite Arab minorities the opportunity to rise and demand political freedoms and civil rights, which they have been generally denied in the Sunni-dominated Arab Gulf monarchies. For its part, Iran misses no opportunity to foment the Shiite unrest where it failed for three decades to export its Islamic revolution. Ironically, Iran is doing this at a time when it gives full, unconditional support for the oppression practiced by the Shiite crescent member regimes of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq at the expense of the rights -- and lives -- of the Sunnis in these countries. Wary of the implications, the bastion of Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia, is building alliances with states that share its outlook in a Sunni axis to combat the Shiite arc, including the Gulf States (to the extent that it considers a union with Bahrain) and is extending full cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey.

The dilemma, however, is that this same Saudi Arabia is seen, by virtue of its position as the guardian of Sunni Islam, as one whose response to the Arab Spring was limited to introducing only modest reforms. For that purpose, it is reported that Saudi Arabia has been engaged in efforts to dissuade the Bahraini monarch from introducing substantive political reforms. Also, and more importantly, it might provide the MB in Egypt with the economic assistance that the country desperately needs in return for a full commitment to the Sunni axis. This might discourage the MB, as many Egyptian scholars attest, from introducing real democratic reforms, especially at a time when Saudi Arabia is suspected of being the primary source of funding for the Salafists who adopt a Wahabi-like ideology and whose detestation of Shiites is only second to its distaste toward infidels. Unfortunately, the net result is that the Arab Spring, which gave rise to the strong camp of Sunni Islamists, is being hijacked by the Sunni-Shiite schism whose focus is to perpetuate their own brand of religious authority over the affairs of the state regardless of the peoples' wishes.

To avoid a catastrophic scenario in which the two pillars of Islam clash in a long, debilitating and bloody conflict to realize their political ambitions -- read authoritarian aspirations of their rulers -- the mission of the Sunni Arab world is twofold. First, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in particular, should make every effort to present a type of Islamic governance that does not alienate other political forces in their respective society. An inclusive system, combined with sustainable development projects to alleviate poverty consistent with Islamic teachings, would not only avoid a sooner-or-later counter-revolutionary explosion, but would also provide an example to the Iranian people to counter the Mullahs in Tehran.

Second, the youth's part in the Sunni Arab world is to reclaim the fundamental underpinnings of their revolution. In Egypt, which may well provide the microcosm of what could take place in the rest of the Arab world, many Egyptians have already started to express regrets for voting for the MB and other Islamist parties in the last parliamentary elections, and for good reason. Islamists did not deliver what they promised: a decent living for the average Egyptian while corruption and crimes are ramped. The youth should learn from their mistakes in the latest elections by closing ranks, running united electorally, and embarking on a massive campaign to protect the democratic, civil nature of the new Egypt by engaging the vast majority of the Egyptian people. Only constant pressure from the public will compel the MB and its candidate for president, Mohamed Morsi, should he win the runoff election next month, to respond to the public's demands for real reforms and navigate a middle path combining Islam with democracy.

No less important is the role of the Shiite Arab youth. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf States, the youth should not allow themselves to be exploited by the devious Iranian leadership. Instead, they should demand their political and civil rights from within the system and not allow outside instigators to undermine the national security and integrity of their home countries.

Consistent with Israel's national interests is to prevent a hegemonic Iran from emerging. Prime Minister Netanyahu should use the unprecedented mandate he currently has in the Knesset to take a serious stand on peace with the Palestinians, especially now as the Sunni-Shiite conflict is intensifying, instead of his futile "wait-and-see" approach. Peace based on a two-state solution would not only empower the Sunni axis (and allow extending cooperation with the Gulf and North Africa's Arab states) but would also maintain Israel's national identity as a Jewish and democratic state which is seriously threatened by further prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is within this dual platform that the Arab Sunni world can maintain its coherence and present an alternative to their societies by sharing Islam's values of freedom, justice, and human rights, which have thus far been squashed by blind Islamic Sunni and Shiite orthodoxy, whose time is surely running out.