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Arab leaders exploit their countries' divisions to stay in power

Arab leaders threatened by the region's uprisings may have finally hit on a tactic that can undermine popular support for protesters: playing on religious and national divides.

Syrian anti-Syrian regime protesters, holds posters and chant slogans calling for the Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down during a protest in front of Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on Saturday, April, 2. The extraordinary wave of protests has proved the most serious challenge yet to the nearly five-decade rule of the Arab Socialist Baath Party, one of the most rigid regimes in the Middle East.

Nader Daoud/AP

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Since Tunisians overthrew their dictator in January, sparking protests across the Middle East, Arab regimes have been seeking to shut down the demonstrators before they, too, are shown the exit. Among the most popular formulas: fueling longstanding social or religious divisions.

In a region notorious for such schisms, many of the protest movements were, at first, remarkably united across sectarian lines for political and economic change. But as wary leaders began framing the protests as a matter of identity or religion rather than reform, citizens turned on protesters – significantly weakening their movements.

"Authoritarianism thrives and supports itself on dividing and ruling," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. "It will use whatever the best methods are for dividing a society, whether it's national questions, ethnic questions, sectarian questions.... [Regimes] keep the people from uniting against them by playing on these types of insecurity."

Genuine reform or a Sunni-Shiite struggle?

A prime example is Bahrain, where a Sunni elite has long suppressed a Shiite majority. When protests broke out in February, Bahrain's ruling family and its Gulf allies were quick to reframe them as an Iran-backed Shiite takeover – rather than a genuine push for reform.


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