The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have prompted similar uprisings in many other countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Though the vast majority of the populations in each of these countries are Muslim, the societies are far from homogeneous. In addition, to social class and ethnic cleavages, Brian Ulrich–Assistant Professor of Middle East History–notes the Sunni/Shi’a sectarian split within Islam:
The sectarian split between a Shi’ite majority and Sunni monarchy and minority matters, but not in a straightforward way. The country’s rulers have played a game of divide and rule, one which seems to have accelerated over the past few years which have seen an increase in anti-Shi’ite discrimination. Presumably hoping to keep smaller the popular base to which they must dispense patronage while tying that base to them ideologically, the Al Khalifa dynasty has portrayed Shi’ites as potential Iranian catspaws and pointed to Iraq as an example of the negative consequences of Shi’ite democratic empowerment. What you see in the government’s rhetoric is an attempt to cast the Shi’ites themselves as the sectarian ones primarily on the grounds of their Shi’ism, much like the Mubarak and Ben Ali regime claimed to suppress Islamic extremism.
Bahrain has also seen major protests before, with a 1990’s “intifada” almost exclusively Shi’ite demographically. During that period, the key to the uprisings’ longevity was a social base in the winding narrow streets of the Shi’ite neighborhoods in and around Manama that the mostly South Asian police had trouble penetrating.
Here’s the video of an interesting debate on the Shi’a/Sunni division in Islam, with some very interesting guests, including U. of Michigan Professor of Middle Eastern History, Juan Cole, who has a very informative blog on Islam and Middle East politics.