As minorities in the region seek equality, the true test will be whether
the new religious and political systems recognize all peoples.
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
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
There was no reaction from Arab governments and the West did not voice its
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
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
THE COPTS of Egypt are another minority subject to oppression and
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
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
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
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
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.