Future democracy in MENA rests upon the role of minorities – a historical Achilles heel, writes Bijan Hakimian.
The 2011 uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) have generally been viewed through two different prisms. For every optimistic reading that sees an emergence of the ‘general will’ of the people there is equally an interpretation that views an opening for dangerous theocracies. The debate has now, in the light of civilian deaths in Egypt and civil war in Syria, decisively shifted to a ‘post- Arab spring’ mentality, overlooking the participatory potential of the uprisings.
Nonetheless, there are at least two lasting lessons that can be conducive towards seeding democratic politics in the region. Firstly the role of grassroots actors is creating fundamental changes in the conduct of politics. More importantly, however, this political energy will be wasted unless channelled towards an eternally brittle concept in the MENA region – the role of minorities within the state.
The uprisings have shaken assumptions that Arab populations are too politically impotent to transcend Western backed dictators. The Egyptian situation is a prime example of this. A wide-ranging movement against the Western-backed Mubarak regime, the political agency of the Egyptian people could legitimately be said to have been exercised without prior reference to foreign actors. Indeed, roles were reversed – Washington found itself embarrassingly trying to align itself with popular sentiments, despite the support that the Mubarak regime enjoyed both economically and militarily from the US. Internally, broad strands of society either saw themselves constituting part of a ‘general will’ or recognized the futility of rejecting such a force. The sovereignty of the Egyptian people began to override outside alliances based on hawkish security interests and internal ones reliant on the contintuity of the military-regime framework.
Grassroots movements – local activism, social media and protests – have clearly been a huge force in these events. Demographic changes, with younger populations facing greater economic uncertainties, have led to an increasing need for more responsive and accountable political systems. The Middle East Institute at the University of Singapore suggests that the pressure of “one of the largest youth cohorts in the region’s history” alongside a failed development model has led to cracks in the system that can no longer be papered over with repression and redistribution. Yet as resistance to traditional forms of authority arises, power vacuums are now opening up which threaten to simply recycle one dictatorship with another.
The issue is clearly therefore not whether political participation is valued, as mass uprisings have confirmed, but rather how it be can harnessed through safe and legitimate modes of expression. The BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen highlights this ‘winner takes all’ nature of post-Arab spring politics. What we are witnessing are exclusive exercises of power that seek to shut out any form of contestation, either by designating opposition voices as terrorists or deeming them to be contrary to state interests. The dangers of these tactics are well-known; sealing these voices off from the political process risks radicalising and simultaneously legitimising these groups in the long run.
More immediately, it entrenches the numerous pre-existing identities within the state to the point of mutual incompatibility. When perceptions of difference are combined with excessive repression, corruption or a lack of representation, sub-national identities assume increasing importance. Thus, Sunni/Alawite, Kurd/Armenian/Turk, believer/heretic become labels so strongly applied they seemingly cannot be worked around. As Dr Stephan Rosiny points out in his report for the German Institute of Global and Area studies, sectarianism in MENA “has become a reality — in the conduct of militias and in the minds of the people.”
What are the answers to these apparently insurmountable problems? Many believe the solutions lie in the womb of the problem itself; the configuration of an artificially constructed nation-state system, and the need for its reconstruction. Calls for secession are emerging in the Yemen, Iraq and Syria, not to mention the long standing calls for statehood by the Palestinians and Kurds. Indeed, attempts to create unifying ties in a region characterised by religious, cultural and ethnic heterogeneity has been problematic from the start. Power-sharing mechanisms attempting to consolidate these differences have led to conflicts of their own, as the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) shows. Similar institutions in post-War Iraq have failed to win over broad sections of the population, who now believe PM Nouri Al–Maliki is increasingly consolidating Shia hegemony in a state bordering the biggest Shia actor in the world, Iran.
In these scenarios, it often seems as if the only way to truly recognise the right to ‘self-determination of peoples’ (Article 1, UN Charter) is to grant them a state of their own. By doing this, it is hoped that majority-minority politics will be replaced by autonomous territories where citizens actively identify with the nation itself, as opposed to merely accepting the dictate of a state seen to represent the interests of only a particular section of society.
This approach to the problem, whilst intuitively appealing, threatens to eradicate an essential part of any functioning democracy – minority rights. New states create new majorities, and by allowing groups to become majorities in their own right what we are effectively doing is wiping away the need for minority politics whatsoever. As Sami Zubaida demonstrates in Islam, the People and the State (1993) these majority/minority identities work primarily as political tools, rather than expressions of biological or cultural distinctiveness. They are flexible and evolve dependent on circumstances.
Thus, during the Arab revolt (1916-1918) against Ottoman rule, notions of Arab identity were invoked against Turkish rulers. Nowadays in Turkey, ties of Sunni Islam are superseded by the political force of ethnicity with the Kurdish problem. Sixty years ago, Egyptian responses to colonialsm were best articulated by the energetic pan-Arab secularism of General Nasser. Twenty years later – in light of military defeat in 1967 against Israel – illusions of Arab unity were shattered and replaced by more pragmatic nationalisms or the political Islam promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Issues of identity are therefore problems that will not simply disappear with reworked borders. History is littered with such examples – Jinnah’s call for Muslim unity before the creation of Pakistan in 1947 now resonates meekly in a state where Shia minorities in Baluchistan province face constant attacks and Ahmadiyya communities aren’t even granted basic rights recognizing their religion. The world’s first modern Islamic revolution, Iran’s in 1979, still grapples with both the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside Israel as well as 90,000 Zoroastrians, whose belief system predates Islam by nearly 2000 years. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, numbering in the millions, continue to suffer backlash at the hands of extremists frustrated by political developments in post-Morsi Egypt.
In a region characterised by great differences, the role of minorities remains integral to the future stability of the region. It is not enough to simply evade these issues by promoting secession or territorial adjustment without thinking through the consequences. What democracy requires, essentially, is protection for those whose identity stands opposed to the professed allegiances of hegemonic groups. Breaking the world down into autonomous states fails to comprehend that autonomy can be viewed at any time in ethnic, religious, racial, cultural, gender, class, tribe, and caste etc. terms. The rise of these minorities occurs by both external and internal influences that states can’t entirely account for. The only thing they can account for are their reactions to these developments.
These reactions are ultimately what will determine the trajectory of MENA politics in the 21st century. Jan Vӧlkel, visiting lecturer at Cairo University, argues if we conceptualize democracy as “the simple possibility of peacefully getting rid of governments through the ballot boxes if a majority of people are unhappy … (then) many Egyptians do indeed still want democracy.” This is a necessary, but nowhere near a sufficient condition for democratic politics.
The hallmark of a truly democratic society lies in its ability to accommodate difference rather than eradicating it. When the bloodshed eventually stops – whether by one side winning out or a stalemate – social structures that temper absolutism and encourage plurality are imperative if any healthy form of politics is to emerge. Clearly, creating such institutions is of utmost difficulty given circumstances of violence and distrust, but there is no easy way to avoid this problem. If by etching in new borders we attempt to etch out the existence of difference, nothing will have changed. In this sense, future democracy in MENA will only be bound by its weakest link – the political status of minorities.
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