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Bahrain F1 race: How a Sunni backlash kept an uprising at bay

The Formula One race in Bahrain today has put the spotlight back on an uprising here that has faltered due to sectarian distrust.


Sebastian Vettel of Germany crosses the finish line at the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix in Sakhir, Bahrain. Vettel won the race driving for Red Bull.

Luca Bruno/AP

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Yaqoub al-Slaise, a young Sunni activist and assistant researcher at Bahrain University, remembers the exact moment when he decided to oppose Bahrain's uprising – once again in the spotlight with today's Formula One race here.

The country's mainly Shiite protesters, who had initially demanded only reform of the Sunni-run government, had shifted to a much bolder call after the regime began to crack down in March 2011. "The people want the fall of the regime," they shouted.

Mr. Slaise and many of his peers saw the protesters' demands as an insult: They were claiming to speak on behalf of everyone – when much of the country's Sunni minority saw things differently.

Now Slaise is a member of what analysts have dubbed Bahrain's "Sunni Awakening," formed early on to oppose the protests. The mobilization of Sunnis, a sector of society once content to sit on the political sidelines, has deepened the sectarian fault lines in this tiny kingdom on Saudi Arabia's eastern flank.

The spirit of uprising that swept the Arab world last year initially united Islamists and secularists, men and women, Sunnis and Shiites in one goal: Overthrow the autocratic regimes that had long ignored the will of the people.

But in the year since Tunisians and Egyptians kicked off the Arab Spring, the phenomenon has shifted from a regionwide revolt against corrupt, unjust rulers into a series of much narrower battles, most of them fought along sectarian lines.


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