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    Middle East
     Jun 14, 2011


Minority cloud looms over Arab summer
By Sreeram Chaulia

The future of minority communities is delicately poised as the hope of the Arab spring segues into an Arab summer in which crackdowns prevail. Even as the central plot running across the Middle East is one of revolutionary fervor versus staying power of long-entrenched despots, a critical sub-story is the dilemma of how minorities can be accommodated in the push for transformation and in the nascent new order.

One of the presumptive myths of former and present Arab dictatorships in multi-ethnic or multi-religious societies like Egypt, Syria and Bahrain is that tyrants with secular and liberal mores are necessary, not only to keep Islamist terrorists under check but to protect minority groups that could be pulverized by the majority if democracy dawns. Democracy is crudely caricatured by Arab authoritarian rulers as nothing but majority rule in which vulnerable minorities would have no security.

The 30-year-long reign of former president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was portrayed by state propagandists as the last resort for the country's Coptic Christians, who comprise around 10% of the Egyptian population. By virtue of being secular and anti-Islamist (i.e. inveterately opposed to Sunni fundamentalism represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda), Mubarak masqueraded as their saviour.

Reality on the ground for Christians under Mubarak was far from being congenial or fear-free. From time to time, they became playthings for the erstwhile regime in a dirty game of appeasement of the frustrated majority Sunni population. Actually, the first death-knell to Mubarak's rule was sounded even before the mass uprising of 2011, when vigilante attacks on Christian properties and places of worship kept rising.

Every act of bombing, arson or slow bureaucratic smothering of Christian institutions under Mubarak, followed by culprits never being brought to book, undermined the foundational logic of his "apres moi, le deluge!"

Yet, since Mubarak was overthrown through a multi-religious coalition representing all segments of Egyptian society, the status of the Copts in the new emerging order remains in limbo. Egyptian Christians were big sufferers under their self-appointed former guardian, Mubarak, but the prospect of a democracy dominated by Sunni Islamists has left them extremely wary of what lies ahead.

The absence of a viable "national unity" party or umbrella coalition in the elections scheduled for the end of 2011 is a frightening one for the Copts, who fear retributive politics from a hardline Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

Copts in an Egypt currently undergoing transition can lucidly see what became of Sunni minorities in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, which is now firmly governed by a Shi'ite coalition accused of serving a narrow sectarian agenda (read anti-Sunni bias). Will a majoritarian genie escape the bottle in Egypt as well and lead to further marginalization and demonization of the Copts? This question stares upfront at the ''leaderless revolution'' which swept Mubarak away.

The mob attack on Copts in May, where security personnel allegedly watched as bystanders and did not come to the rescue, is an omen of how easily the euphoria of unseating a dictatorship can turn into a populist, religiously bigoted democracy in which parties compete for votes by scapegoating minorities.

An even more complex minority conundrum is bound to arise in Syria, where the rebellion against the Assad family dictatorship has been met with brutal suppression aimed at the majority Sunnis. The Shi'ite Alawi sect's domination of Syria's body politic, economy and security apparatus since former president Hafez al-Assad's "corrective coup" of 1970 has been complete, much to the chagrin of the majority Sunnis. Alawis have been selectively chosen to occupy all critical posts in the state structure by both Hafez and his son, President Bashar al-Assad.

As with Egypt under Mubarak or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Bashar's self-justification includes the claim that he is the only secular force that can prevent Alawi minorities from being subjugated by Sunni majoritarianism if democracy were to be allowed. From their present perch as an "advantaged minority" (a phrase employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), Alawis have every reason to believe in a backlash against them if Bashar also falls the way Mubarak and former secular strongmen like Ben Ali of Tunisia and (presumably) Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen have.

Syria also has a sizeable Christian minority of its own, which too watches gingerly as the mass unrest shakes Assad and triggers massacres. The same authoritarianism which has choked Syrians in general, and the Sunni majority in particular, is ironically winning praise from the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, who was quoted by Reuters that "definitely, the Christians in Syria support Bashar al-Assad. They hope that this storm will not spread."

Conscious that Western opinion is easily moved by appeals to minority rights and freedom of religion, Bashar has carefully cultivated an image as a "liberal" who stands firmly against extremist Sunni Islamist forces. The prolonged ambivalence in Western capitals as the revolt against Bashar spread throughout Syria owed partly to the dubious belief that the militaristic rule of the extended Assad family was a guarantor of minority rights.

As the uprising against Bashar has deepened, he is now playing another minority card by granting citizenship to tens of thousands of stateless Kurds residing in the north-eastern Hasaka region. Syrian Kurds, who have borne the brunt of cultural and political victimization like their counterparts in Turkey or Iran, and who make up about 10% of Syria's population, are thorns in the flesh for the Assad dynasty.

The dramatic decision to suddenly confer them with citizenship amid nationwide anti-regime turmoil is a classic divide-and-rule ploy, wherein authoritarians selectively empower or render token justice to a distinctly identifiable group and then try to buy loyalty through such concessions.

Should Bashar be eventually deposed, will this grant of citizenship to Syrian Kurds stand and will it expand into more humane laws and policies demanded by activist Syrian Kurds? The litmus test of a civilized democratic transition in Syria, whenever it begins, would be about how maturely it handles the Kurdish minorities in their quest for dignified life.

The most volatile minority weapon unleashed by Bashar of late is that of the Palestinian refugees. Forever manipulated by the Assads for Syria's strategic and domestic political ends, Syrian Palestinians have been let loose in a controlled fashion to protest and try to march across the disputed border with Israel (Golan Heights).

Israel is interpreting the newfound audacity of Syrian Palestinians to try and reclaim parts of the occupied territories of 1967 as a deliberate diversionary tactic of Bashar away from the domestic movement for democracy. It is just as likely that Bashar is trying to divide the opposition field arrayed against him by opportunistically gifting political autonomy to yet another minority group (Palestinian Syrians number around 350,000).

Popular movements waging a do-or-die struggle against ruthless tyrants or colonial masters often brush divisive issues along ethnic or religious lines under the carpet for fear of getting bogged down in debates about equity and distributive justice. But these chickens can come home to roost after regime change is successful, ultimately generating ‘ethnocratic' outcomes in which minorities are crushed under the guise of democracy and "people's will".

Thinkers and planners of non-violent democratic change in the Middle East have to therefore confer and brainstorm how minorities can be accommodated into the mainstream anti-authoritarian ranks, and how "unity" implies not just closing ranks against the hated dictator but also a lasting challenge of caring for particular sensitivities of less numerous groups within society.

Due to historical colonial design, most states of the Middle East are multi-ethnic. If Arab democracy activists and their leaders, hailing mostly from majority ethnic backgrounds, are not mindful of the threats of continued discrimination against minority groups after the fall of the ancien regime, they risk chaos and undesirable external interventions which could snuff out the dream of freedom altogether.

Sreeram Chaulia is Professor and Vice Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the newly released book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (I B Tauris).

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Turkey's not-so-subtle shift on Syria(Jun 9, '11)

Unrest in Syria inspires Kurdish activism (Jun 3, '11)

The hunger to come in Egypt (May 10, '11)


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