People have taken to the streets in Arab countries to topple repressive regimes and set up democratic governments – such is the consensus in the West. But will these new Arab democracies, should they ever come into being, embody significant changes regarding non-Muslim or non- Arab minorities? Discrimination against the other – the one who is not a Muslim Arab – or the refusal to accept the other, is one of the more complex political and ethical issues in the Middle East and North Africa, even though it is rarely mentioned.
Now that a revolutionary wave is sweeping across the Arab world, one must ask whether the revolution is for all or for Muslim Arabs alone.
The Middle East and North Africa are home to millions of national and religious minorities living under Arab occupation since the seventh century; they are still waiting for equality or fighting for independence. The Kurds are among the oldest peoples in the world, and they have kept their identity through centuries of Arab and Ottoman occupation.
Though Islamized, they have kept their language (Indo-European close to Persian), traditions and customs. Today their number is estimated at 25 million to 30 million, dispersed between Turkey (15 million), Iran (5 million), Iraq (5 million) and Syria (2 million).
They have been unsuccessfully fighting for independence since the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and tens of thousands have been killed by the Turks and the Arabs. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against them, and thousands died a painful death in the north of the country.
Saddam also implemented a displacement policy, driving Kurds away from their villages and from Kirkuk and bringing in Sunni Arabs.
Indeed, tensions run high today between the Kurdish autonomous region – set up by allied forces after the Gulf War to protect the Kurds against Saddam – and the Iraqi central government.
Three months ago political parties in that autonomous region proclaimed the right of self-determination for the Kurdish people, a clear call for independence.
There was no reaction from Arab governments and the West did not voice its support.
THE BERBERS, another people living under occupation in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, are considered the native North Africa population. Their name is derived from “barbarian” since, according to some, they spoke neither Latin nor Greek. Before the Arab conquest, they had a flourishing agricultural culture.
In their own tongue they call t h e m s e l v e s Amazigh and their language is Tamazight. They were Islamized and even played an important role in expending Islam in Spain but have always retained their original identity.
Since the North African countries gained independence in the 1960s, they have been resisting Arabization (preferring the French language) and fighting for the recognition of their distinct culture.
The Berbers in Algeria make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Many of them live in Kabylia and have managed to set up an active, strong independence movement. In 2010 they formed a government in exile in Paris, headed by Ferhat Mehenni, a Kabyle singer and activist. The event was mostly ignored by Western media and no government voiced its support, while Algeria intensified its repression.
In Morocco, where they comprise an estimated 40% of the population, there is an Amazigh movement asking for autonomy, but it gets no support from the West.
THE COPTS of Egypt are another minority subject to oppression and discrimination.
Their numbers are estimated at some 8 to 10 million, about 10% of the country’s population. They are the original people of Egypt – their name is derived from the Greek word for Egypt. They converted to Christianity in the fourth century and have kept their own language.
They are denied equal rights in their own country and are not allowed to hold significant positions such as provincial governor or head of a university. Their representation in parliament is limited and does not reflect their numbers. They cannot build churches freely; even restoration work needs special government approval.
Article 2 of the constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state and that Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.
There is no attempt to cancel this article in the proposals for a new constitution made by the consultative committee set up following the revolution.
Attacks against Copts have not abated since the revolution; a church was set ablaze and in the ensuing confrontation with Muslim militants, 13 Copts were killed and dozens wounded. While Egypt and the world rejoice at the fall of the regime, the fate of the Copts is in stark contrast to the spirit of the revolution and the hopes for democracy.
Christians in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories are also suffering from discrimination and aggression, and many have left to find a new life in West; the number of Christians in the Arab world is steadily decreasing.
Only two non-Arab peoples have managed to obtain their independence: the State of Israel in 1948, 1308 years after the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land, and South Sudan a few weeks ago, after 40 years of bitter war and more than 2 million dead. In neighboring Darfur Arab militias, aided and abetted by the Sudanese government, are still massacring non-Arab populations.
HOW IS Israel affected by the revolutions? In Egypt, there was no mention of Israel at first.
With the fall of the regime, radical elements from the left and from the right have now free rein. There are voices calling for a revision of the peace treaty or even its cancelation. The sale of Egyptian gas, based on the treaty, is now called in question.
One can therefore legitimately ask whether revolutions calling for democracy do not ultimately arouse religious extremism and nationalism, bringing about hostility toward Israel instead of tolerance and openness – leading to recognition. Can a true democracy in the Arab world not recognize the legitimacy of Israel? Democracies are supposed to look for compromise and concentrate on economic and social progress. Unfortunately it is highly doubtful whether true democracies will rise in the region.
Where, then, is the Arab revolution going? Will it be content with minor constitutional changes and elections which will – perhaps – be free in some countries, to bring about economic reform and better living conditions, with no consideration of the continuing oppression of minorities? Can an authentic democracy, based on freedom of expression, liberation of women and basic human rights, exist while ignoring what is happening to the Copts or the Kurds? It does not seem possible.
The minorities scattered over the Arab world also want their share of the revolution, and their voice will no doubt be heard in the near future. They will no longer accept the old system of repression and discrimination as if nothing had happened. In Egypt it has has begun.
The Copts want Article 2 of the constitution cancelled and are now demonstrating for equality. In Iraq the Kurds are waiting for the right time to move.
However in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to emerge reinforced from free elections and might even gain access to power; it might then set up a government calling itself democratic, which would inexorably slide toward something closer to the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran and aspire to Islamize the whole of the Middle East first, and then the whole of the world.
Should free and honest – or relatively free and honest – elections bring the Brotherhood to power, would this be considered a democratic move? Would exchanging secular dictatorships – through democratic means – for an anti-democratic movement calling for the restoration of the caliphate be acceptable? The Brotherhood has not changed its motto since it was created 80 years ago: “Allah is our goal, the prophet is our leader, the Koran is our law, jihad is our way and death for the glory of Allah is our supreme hope.”
Is this what the masses will vote for when they are free to do so? It is difficult to answer that question, though the lack of education to democracy which is the result of the deep penetration of Islam in all education systems in the Arab world is not encouraging. It is likely that many will find themselves under Islamist dictatorial regimes harsher and far more repressive than the previous ones.
Yet already voices are heard in the West claiming that if this is the will of the people, it must be respected. The same voices, in the United States and in Europe, have given the Muslim Brothers a passing grade, some even claiming that it is a secular movement and that one can open a dialogue with them, that they will lead Arab peoples to progress and enlightenment. Nothing is further from the truth, but as we have seen in recent years, in Europe there are those who prefer not to see the steady erosion of democratic values by Islamists because they are not ready to acknowledge the problem and confront it.
THE REVOLUTIONARY process in the Arab world is still ongoing. The true
test of these revolutions will not be limited constitutional or regime
changes but a fundamental change in the religious and political system:
separation of religion and state, new secular constitutions, division of
powers and, above all, a readiness to accept the other, full equality
for women and for all minorities – and yes, the recognition of the
historical rights of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.