Heiko Wimmen

Divisive Rule

Sectarianism and Power Maintenance in the Arab Spring: Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria

SWP Research Paper 2014/RP 04, March 2014, 31 Pages

In early 2011, popular movements in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria protested against authoritarian and corrupt regimes and political leaders. They mobilized on platforms of national unity and accused established leaders of exploiting historical divisions along religious and sectarian lines to defend their grip on power. These divisions however quickly came back to the fore, leading to the failure of the movements, bitter conflict and, in the case of Syria, to devastating civil war.

The purpose of this research paper is to show that these outcomes were brought about by the strategies that regimes and political leaders employed to defeat the challenge that popular movements presented to their rule. To this end, they exploited specific weaknesses that made it impossible for these movements to hold on to the inclusive platforms which initially had gained them support across all social groups. A historical perspective reveals that the success of these strategies resulted from historical experiences and practices of authoritarian and violent forms of leadership and rule.

European policymakers should therefore reject arguments that ethnic or sectarian conflict can only be contained by authoritarian rule. Once they are seriously challenged, authoritarian rulers unfailingly resort to exploiting such conflicts, and add yet another chapter to a history of civil strife that will in turn generate new violence. In divided societies, today’s authoritarian stability begets tomorrow’s civil war. Instead, external actors need to seek out and strengthen potentials for participatory governance and for solidarity that cuts across the existing lines of division. The events of 2011 have demonstrated that both exist in these societies, but need help to prevail against divisive rulers.