The spirit of Cairo’s Tahrir Square was reborn on February 16, as a diverse group of Bahrainis gathered in Pearl Square in Manama, the country’s capital. Two days before, a Facebook-organized “Day of Rage” had ended in two deaths as security forces cracked down on protesters. Now, the demonstrators marched from the funeral toward Pearl Square’s traffic roundabout, determined to continue the fight for a new Bahrain. Officials from the main Shia political society, the Islamic National Accord Association (Al-Wefaq) brought cleaning supplies to scrub graffiti off the Pearl Square fountain. The leader of the leftist secular National Democratic Action Society (Wa’ad) movement spoke of Bahrain’s proud history of cross-sectarian labor activism and proposed the formation of a new national organization to press for a genuine constitutional monarchy. Shia and Sunni prayed together. By nightfall, thousands of unaligned Bahrainis had crowded the square to join what, by then, felt like a celebration.

Yet that celebration was cruelly extinguished at three in the morning by a surprise police attack on the sleeping encampments. Security forces wounded hundreds and killed four in the brutally efficient raid. Even health workers seeking to aid the wounded were attacked. By morning, the space where Bahrain’s pro-democracy activists, Shia and Sunni, had come together was encased in barbed wire. The ruling al-Khalifa monarchy did not want that unity to continue.

Like much of the news media covering Bahrain’s uprising, it prefers a simpler narrative of Shia against Sunni. Just as Hosni Mubarak held Egypt hostage for decades to a false choice between staying loyal to his regime or facing an Islamist takeover, the ruling al-Khalifa family resisted democratic reform by presenting themselves as protectors of the Sunni community against the Shia majority. The extraordinary meeting of foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Bahrain on the same day as the Pearl Square raid both reinforced and broadened this threat by sharply denouncing foreign (read: Iranian) intervention in Gulf countries. During the meeting and since, the GCC have been reviving the fear that plagued the region after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution -- that Iran would foment unrest among Shia communities of the Gulf.

The GCC warning resonates in the United States, which bases its Fifth Naval Fleet in Bahrain and is locked in its own confrontation with Iran. But it should not. In fact, separate from the Iranian question, the empowerment of the Shia majority is a necessary component of political liberalization. Shias should be able to engage as full citizens, and their role in building Bahrain should be respected. This would be the best way to curb Iranian influence. A more democratic Bahrain that fully integrates its Shia public would be less susceptible to appeals from the Islamic Republic. Over time, the political relevance of Shia identity might even decrease, since Shias would have less reason to seek communal protection from a discriminatory state.

Contrary to Western fears and the Bahraini regime’s announcements, the country’s largely Shia opposition movement is not an Iranian implant. Indeed, its strength is a product of the Bahraini government’s own policies. Al-Wefaq, for example, is a deeply communal movement that emerged in the wake of the violent suppression of a Shia uprising in the 1990s. When I met with the movement’s quietly charismatic leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, a number of years ago, he explained that “the best democracy is practiced on the street,” meaning that the key to effective political change is constant communication with the people. It is this connection, combined with its religious legitimacy, that allows Al-Wefaq to mobilize Bahrainis so impressively when it wants to. Even in 2005, it drew more than 50,000 Shia -- nearly one in ten Bahrainis -- to a demonstration in support of constitutional reform, a demand that still unites protesters of all factions today.

Those protests were ultimately unsuccessful. In 2006, Al-Wefaq ended a four-year boycott of the parliament, demonstrating a willingness to work within a flawed system and accept the necessity of incremental reform. The move was costly for the Shia opposition. One of Al-Wefaq’s founders, Hassan Mushaima, left in protest to form a rival organization, the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy. This would have been a tremendous opportunity for the al-Khalifa government to broaden its legitimacy, but instead of reaching out to Al-Wefaq -- inviting cooperation to lessen systematic discrimination against Shias in housing, government hiring practices, and political districting -- the ruling family worked to isolate the Shia opposition. So although it portrayed the Shias as dangerously sectarian, in reality it was the one fomenting sectarian distrust.

By gerrymandering districts and holding strategic naturalizations of Sunnis from neighboring states, the regime prevented Al-Wefaq from gaining its rightful majority position in the elected lower house. At the same time, the government prevented the popular leftist cross-sectarian opposition headed by Wa’ad from gaining any parliamentary seats. As a result, the 2006 parliament was a strictly sectarian affair in which Sunni Islamists from both the Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood traditions faced off against the cleric-led Al-Wefaq. This composition belied the diverse views of the Bahraini public and solidified sectarian identities in the formal political sphere.

Still, the al-Khalifa regime’s strategy did little to advance its stability. Indeed, it ultimately cost it a precious asset: a legitimate national Shia movement willing to work within the system. Al-Wefaq’s minority position in parliament left it burdened with the responsibility of governance without the structural power to force accountability and change. Former supporters decried Al-Wefaq’s inability to curb royal corruption while at the same time supporting the implementation of the Gulf’s first income tax. Disillusionment returned to the Shia street -- a wave of tire-burning protests hit Shia villages, and the popularity of Haq rose. The organization’s confrontational program of civil disobedience and international human rights activism siphoned support from al-Wefaq, particularly among the youth. The regime responded forcefully and brutally in 2010, arresting 23 dissidents, including human rights workers and a well-known blogger, allegedly subjecting some to torture while in detention.

The outbreak of the Arab revolutions this year, then, came at a critical point in the evolution of Bahrain’s opposition politics. By providing a model of regime change through mass protest, the Tunisian and Egyptian examples reinforced the Bahraini opposition’s drift away from formal politics back into the street. The protests across the Arab world returned the opposition’s focus to core democratic issues: freedom and dignity. The al-Khalifa regime’s lethal crackdown hardened its resolve. Many in Bahrain now want more than constitutional reformation. They want to achieve what Tunisia and Egypt have done -- to fell the regime.

After the violence in Pearl Square, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa apparently regained control from a hard-line faction of the ruling family that had been running the crackdown, and tried to appease demonstrators by calling for national unity and a dialogue among all parties. To entice the opposition to enter negotiations, the King has met two of their key demands -- withdrawing troops from the streets, allowing the protesters to retake the symbolic Pearl Square, and releasing hundreds of prisoners, including the prominent Shia dissidents he had accused of plotting terrorism. But by calling all Bahraini factions to the table to talk, the regime has effectively diluted the opposition’s power by adding more conservative and pro-monarch parties to the conversation.

The rival rallies held on February 21 by the opposition in Pearl Square and by monarchy loyalists in Al-Fateh mosque reinforced the image of a society hopelessly divided between Shia democrats and Sunni monarchists. The potential for sectarian polarization to harden to the point where compromise is impossible is real, but it belies the fluid situation on the ground. Fearing the loss of national unity, all sides present themselves as speaking for all Bahrainis, regardless of religion. The mass of people in control of Pearl Square still contains a number of cross-sectarian democratic and labor movements. And even the ostensibly pro-monarchy gathering at Al-Fateh mosque challenged the monarchy to enact deeper social and political reforms.

As attention drifts elsewhere in the Middle East, the Bahraini public is still politically mobilized to an astonishing degree. It will take tremendous skill to find a solution that will avoid dangerous sectarian polarization and further bloodshed. Not having taken advantage of Al-Wefaq’s parliamentary inclusion, the al-Khalifa family now faces the street. The street wants revolution, but the majority of the Sunni community will not support the fall of the monarchy, and Saudi Arabia, just across the causeway, will not allow it. The best solution is reform -- substantial reform -- to put the island on the path of genuine constitutional monarchy.

The U.S. confrontation with Iran has heightened sectarian tensions across the Middle East. Bahrain offers an opportunity to push back against this dangerous trend. The promise of the Pearl uprising -- that Bahraini Shia could be integrated through a broader democratic movement -- should be realized. Although the empowerment of Shias poses some risks, the alternative is much worse. If the Gulf’s first attempt at an Egypt-inspired democratic revolution ends in sectarian strife and violent suppression of the Shia majority, the unrest will not be restricted to the tiny island. And the government in Iran will find a much more receptive political environment across Arabia for its hard-line message.

For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next.

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  • KRISTIN SMITH DIWAN is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the School of International Service at American University.
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