Minorities and the Arab Spring: The great divide

Democratic principles e.g. equality for all, respect for law are foreign to young Arab revolutionaries.

COPTS ATTEND a mass funeral in Cairo R 311  (photo credit: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)
COPTS ATTEND a mass funeral in Cairo R 311
(photo credit: Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)
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 assassinations.
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 and France.
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.
Thus 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 elections.
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 independence.
Christians are persecuted everywhere and especially in Iraq; they are emigrating by the tens of thousands.
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 of refugees.
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 citizens.
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 consensus.
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 legislation.
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.
Everywhere the 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 bode well.
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.

The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.