Buried beneath the news’ cycle of the Arab Spring is a much overlooked and potentially revolutionary fact – the real “spring” under way across the lands of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant and North Africa is not Arab.
Say what you will about the Arab Spring. But so far, the most remarkable and potentially disruptive developments of 18 months of uprisings is the return of ethnic, tribal and religious identities to the political stage as a challenge to the notion of a uniform Arab world. The truth is that the Arab world is an artificial concoction, the illegitimate child of the incestuous union between European colonialism and Arab nationalism. When, after World War I, France and Great Britain carved out the Ottoman Empire into protectorates, they largely ignored the principle of peoples’ self-determination affirmed by then-US president Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the only exceptions being, possibly, the short-lived Druze state under French rule in Syria, and the reluctant fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration in Palestine.
Arab nationalism fought colonial rule and contested the artificially drawn boundaries of the post-1918 regional order. But Arab nationalists disregarded the rights of non-Arab minorities, which they vociferously claimed for themselves. The Arab regimes that came to life in the age of Egypt’s pan-Arab nationalist ruler, Gamal Abdel Nasser, spoke of self-determination. Their followers believed that the boundaries separating Arab-speaking peoples from the Atlas to the Gulf were imposed by outside powers – artificial and unjust. Yet, they never dared recognize that their call for unity was as artificial as the divisions it sought to overcome. Once in power, they discriminated, persecuted, and often expelled minorities. Those who remained often suffered forceful Arabization.
At most, religious minorities enjoyed protection – the same type of benevolent second-class status that pre-modern Ottoman rule had granted them in the past. Yet, this protection was fragile – their rights rested on a ruler’s benevolence, the flimsiest of guarantees – as Armenians, Bahai’s, Copts and Jews have each in turn painfully learned. And it never extended to national claims: the mass graves of Kurds in Iraq and the genocide of Sudan’s Animist and Christian peoples bear witness to this.
The fall of tyrants has now created an opening. The transition to democracy hangs in the balance in Egypt and Tunisia. Syria’s dictator is still clinging to power. Arab monarchies have weathered the storm so far – though not all are in tranquil waters yet. But under the radar, the unthinkable is beginning to happen.
Associating the word “spring” with with democratic change is an old habit of history: the wave of European revolutions that briefly shocked Europe’s authoritarian empires was called the “Spring of Nations.” So was, 120 years later, the Prague Spring of 1968, and, more recently, the 1989 peaceful revolutions against Communist rule in Eastern and Central Europe. Yet, for all the emphasis that these events put on individual freedoms rooted in classical liberal demands for citizen’s rights, many of these revolutions were about national self-determination – national uprisings against multi-ethnic empires that, through authoritarian rule, trampled both individual rights and national identities.
With the fall of Arab tyrannical rule, something similar is now happening in the Arab regional order. If Arab states transition to democracy but forget their minorities’ collective rights, they will further ignite centrifugal forces.
Take the Kurds. History had been cruel to them: their aspirations for a nation-state were dashed at the 1919 Versailles Conference. Their homeland was carved out between four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – whose virulent nationalism has been equally hell-bent on denying them even their most basic rights. But since 1991, thanks to a Western-imposed no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, a free and independent Kurdistan – a state in all but name – has slowly emerged. Now, with unrest in Syria affecting local Kurds, the temptation to break the barriers of Arab nationalism will be strong.
Nor is Kurdistan an exception; it may just be a harbinger of things to come.
Last year, the non-Arab South Sudan finally freed itself from the yoke of oppression of its northern Arab rulers. South Sudan, of course, hangs in the balance; Iraqi Kurdistan remains formally part of Iraq, and most Kurds remain under the yoke of oppression in Syria, Turkey and Iran. But elsewhere, as centralized Arab regimes give way to the unknown, there is an opening.
In Somalia – a member of the Arab League – the former British colonial domains of Puntland and Somaliland have enfranchised themselves from the southern chaos of Mogadishu and its troubled environs. In Libya – a country held together by force and now no longer beholden to its dictator – being Arab or Muslim is not the determining factor for political identity and national self-governance. Syria — if its murderous ruler Bashar Assad finally capitulates to the demands of its people — may follow the same path. Elsewhere, in Central Africa, the Tuareg populations of Northern Mali have proclaimed independence and established a new state – Azawad. It is on the edges of the Arab world, but it may encourage breakaway movements across North Africa, wherever Berber tribes suffer from Arab discrimination.
The demise of the Arab state is not assured; even when it comes, it could be every bit as bloody and messy as ethnic conflicts in the post-communist order of the Balkans and the Caucasus. But the Arab Spring offers a promise: freedom for the non-Arab ethnic groups and the non-Muslim religious minorities of the Middle East.
It is a promise the West should embrace. For replacing an unjust order with one that continues to disregard minorities and their rights is never going to bring stability, peace and prosperity to those lands.