|Minority cloud looms over Arab
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights
reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and
All material on
this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form
without written permission.
© Copyright 1999 -
2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li
Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab
Kirikhan, Thailand 77110