Minority rights in the Arab Spring

Ali Zalmi

 By Ali Zalmi:                        

The Kurds’ fate in the new political landscape of the Arab world as an example

The Kurds of northern Iraq and north-east Syria are not the only minorities to have faced long-term persecution in Arab countries: The Copts in Egypt, the Berber (Amazigh) in North Africa, the Southern Sudanese in Sudan and the Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are other examples of victimization by majorities. Following 29 days of popular uprising in Tunisia last January, ending in the stepping down of Ben Ali, the protests spread and they continue in the Arab world. So a burning question for any member of these minorities is: Will the changes occurring in the Arab political landscape guarantee the freedom of ‘others’?

From the point of view of minorities, the silence of the world powers in the face of breaches of human rights and internal oppression – such as that suffered by Kurds in Iraq under the Ba’ath regime in the 1980s – has been a depressing feature. The Arab-Israel conflict is the one exception, but most other internal conflicts in Arab countries have not been much reported. The Southern Sudanese independence referendum in 2011, in which 98.83% of Southern Sudanese voted in favour of independence, was a breakthrough of important political consequence for the region. This kind of change was quite unprecedented in the region and it has inspired many other minority political and social movements. Interestingly, this was concurrent with the popular uprising in the Arab world and it gives more hope and encouragement to minority groups who have suffered long-term racial, religious and political persecution.

In the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, clashes between Christian protesters and military police left 25 people dead. This once again raised concerns about Egypt’s social and political stability on the one hand and about minority rights in this ‘free’ country on the other. In Libya, while the Berbers joined the revolution to liberate the country from Gaddafi’s regime, the situation of some tribes and minorities is deteriorating. Even though they fought against Gaddafi, their fate is uncertain. This was also the case with minorities in other countries following conflicts, such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. Libya will face significant challenges to stabilize and reconstruct itself and provide a challenge to the Western powers.

In Iraq after the removal of Saddam in spring 2003,  the country went through a series of harsh tests concerning security, political instability and the reconstruction of its infrastructure. The Kurds made a significant contribution towards Iraq’s post-war stability, as Kurds in Iraq already were enjoying semi-autonomy, helped by the establishment of the UN-backed no-fly zone. For many commentators this was a golden opportunity towards independence, which Kurds have yearned for since the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Some Iraqi Kurds felt that their political leaders went to Baghdad in 2003 to ‘gain’ something which they already had. Right now the tension between the Kurds in Iraq and Maliki’s central government is particularly evident.

Kurdish opposition parties in Syria have the same feeling towards their counterpart Arab oppositionists organised in the Syrian National Council (SNC). Their concerns were highlighted at the meeting held in Turkey last August to form the SNC. At that meeting some of the elected leaders of the new organisation accused Kurdish opposition parties of not cooperating with the rest of the opposition in Syria.

Obama’s administration is playing a vague and contradictory role in Iraq as it did at the beginning of the uprising in Egypt in January 2011. For the US, Iraq is improving in many ways and the democratization of Iraq is a ‘successful’ example of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Therefore any act towards weakening the Iraqi central government will be condemned by them. Just last week Mr Paul Bremer, the former head of the Civil Administration in Iraq said: “If the Kurds in Iraq want separation from central government, they would be making a big mistake and this will lead to a big internal war.”

Often when a dictator is swept away in the Arab world, a state of uncertainty follows. To avoid what happened in Iraq’s post-war experience – in terms of the killings, kidnappings of civilians and the spread of hatred between different groups in society – it is hugely important for the countries affected by the Arab Spring to include all, regardless of backgrounds, in the sharing of power. Unfortunately, what we have witnessed so far signals something else. The Arab Spring may be prized by many but – in the battleground and away from the media coverage – others might be worried.

Ali Zalmi is a Kurd from the south of Kurdistan and a freelance journalist. 

Copyright © 2012 Kurdistantribune.com

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