The shock waves breaking over the Middle East are not the result of a so called
spring of hope. They are the result of the failure of the Arab states to come up
with a coherent national narrative uniting their different components and to
establish modern societies where all are equals.
For centuries the Middle
East and North Africa constituted a vast if amorphous Islamic entity ruled by a
caliph according to the Shari’a – an entity frequently exploding into civil wars
with dynasties rising and disappearing through bloody coups and
In the past 500 years the Middle East was part of the
Ottoman Empire; the sultan ruled from afar and left non-Muslim ethnic and
religious minorities pretty much alone as long as they paid their taxes – though
there were many instances of massacres and forced Islamization. It all came to a
sudden end after World War I. The Ottoman Empire was carved into a number of
states more or less according to the whim and/or national interests of Britain
The Arab world is predominantly peopled by Arabs who are
Sunnis, but all the new states found themselves with scores of religious and
ethnic minorities, some established well before the dawn of Islam.
Syria is ruled by an Alawi minority much resented by the Sunni majority.
Bahrain, with its majority Shia population, is ruled by Sunnis. In Iraq, the
Sunni minority which ruled until the fall of Saddam Hussein is not ready to
concede power to the Shia majority which emerged from recent
In North Africa, Berbers make up an estimated third of the
populations but have no representation and no rights. Ten million Copts in Egypt
complain of discrimination and harassment. Thirty million Kurds scattered over a
number of countries yearn for national autonomy if not outright
Christians are persecuted everywhere and especially in
Iraq; they are emigrating by the tens of thousands.
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Dozens of smaller
groups are being denied rights and whittled out of existence. It must also be
remembered that 800,000 Jews, who had lived in these areas for centuries, were
driven out after the creation of the State of Israel.
Nearly a century
after they rose on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab states have failed
to cause the mosaic of ethnic, national and religious communities which form
them to coalesce into nations with common goals and aspirations. Those societies
have been torn by ceaseless internal and external squabbles, political and
economic discrimination, revolts, civil wars and military coups – resulting in
an estimated five million dead and countless wounded as well as a growing number
These developments took a heavy toll on their economies. Far
from focusing on unifying factors and striving to develop their country, leaders
and local elites devoted all their energies to finding an elusive Arab unity
based either on Islam or on secular nationalism.
Two visions dominated
the building of Arab states. The proponents of Islam strived to create a
religious state which would deny the rights of non-Muslim minorities,
Christians, Jews, Bahais etc. and turn them into second-class
On the other side was the powerful groundswell of secular Arab
nationalism looking to establish a state for people sharing the same Arab
language and culture, whatever their ethnic or religious origin. In such a way
Christian communities scattered over the Arab world and generally considering
themselves part of that world would be able to be part of the national
Such would not be the case, however, for national or religious
minorities wishing to distance themselves and be recognize as independent
minorities. Thus Kurds and Berbers, who are Sunnis but aspire to autonomy, could
not be included in the consensus, nor could the Copts of Egypt who want to be
recognized as such.
The first constitutions, drafted in the ’20s in
Egypt, Syria and Iraq while French and British influence was still very strong,
did try to give equal rights to all citizens – though stating that each of these
countries was part of the Arab world and would work towards its unity, with
Islam being the official religion and the Shari’a the source of all
Nevertheless it made it possible for non-Sunnis to become
prime ministers: Boutros Ghali, a Copt, in Egypt – which led to his
assassination by a Muslim fanatic; Fares Khoury, a Christian, in Syria; and in
Iraq, Nuri Said, a Kurd, also assassinated.
However, the two main tenets
of these constitutions – Arab unity as a goal and Islam as state religion, did
not leave much hope to non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities.
By the ’50s
and the ’60s it became apparent that both trends were fast losing ground, having
failed to solve internal and external issues or even to promote a viable economy
benefiting the masses. Corruption was rampant. The failure of combined Arab
armies to prevent the creation of the State of Israel was felt to be a bitter
and humiliating blow, blamed on corrupt leaderships and ushering in a succession
of military coups in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Sudan.
new rulers proclaimed they were going to modernize their country, promote
economic and social reforms, and ensure education for all. It turned out to be
empty promises that could not be kept. Part of the problem was that no effort
was made to improve the status of minorities and make them feel part of the
nation-in-the-building. Would-be enlightened leaders soon turned into dictators,
oppressing their own people while fighting their neighbors.
At the same
time, these so-called secular military regimes never dissociated themselves from
Islam. On the contrary, they started promoting Islamic education in order to
distract the masses from their military defeats and from the deteriorating
economic situation. Arab expatriates who had gone in search of work to Saudi
Arabia and to the Emirates returned home infused with the spirit of the extreme
Wahabi Islam they experienced there.
Years of repression, poverty and
overall frustration exploded in what is still being dubbed the “Arab Spring,”
and exposed the plights of minorities for all to see.
While it is true
that the youngsters who took to the streets to topple corrupt regimes wanted a
better life, it must not be forgotten that they had been exposed to Islamic
culture and nationalism from the day they were born. Democratic principles such
as equality for all – women and ethnic and religious minorities included – and
tolerance and respect for the law are foreign to them. Free and fair elections
do not necessarily lead to a democratic government, as is being eloquently
demonstrated in Egypt, where tradition and religion may well be determining the
new constitution and the new regime. It seems at this stage that minorities and
national unity are not on the agenda. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and of
the more extreme Salafis, who have been increasingly harassing Copts, does not
On the one hand, the first wave of elections will almost
certainly bring in Islamic regimes everywhere.
On the other, the social
and economic revolution the youngsters were striving for will not be denied
forever. What remains to be seen is how this will work out.
Will the new
regimes try to better the living conditions of Sunnis alone and go on
discriminating against their minorities? Equally important, will these
minorities remain passive or are they going to rebel and ask for their rights?
These are but a few of the issues which will dominate the next few years and may
well result in bloody conflicts and even bloodier civil wars.
a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to
Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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