Equality Must Be the Legacy of the Arab Spring

If minority rights are not protected, they will be like loose threads that can be pulled to unravel these new democracies

So far, the talk has been good. As Islamist parties gain majority votes in post-revolution elections in the Arab world, they have said all the right things to assure people of their of moderate, open-minded credentials. Plurality is the buzzword in the speeches made to calm fears of an Islamist takeover.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's political party program outlines plans for a "civil state, defined as a non-military, non-religious state... that respects human rights". To make it clear that the party won't enforce piety in public life, Tunisia's Ennahda party leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, promised that, apart from stating that Tunisia is a Muslim country, "there will be no other references to religion in the constitution".

But now it looks as though this religious component has suffered some function creep in Tunisia. Just as human rights activist Moncef Marzouki was sworn in as the country's new president, part of a coalition agreement between centrists and Ennahda, the assembly approved a provisional constitution. And, just like the old constitution of the hated former regime, it states that the Tunisian president must be a Muslim.

It's a transitional document and Ennahda officials have argued that, as 98% of the population is Muslim, the stipulation isn't a big deal. But this seems to miss the point and open up a credibility gap between all the talking and the reality. Even if it's unlikely that Tunisia would elect a Christian, Jewish or Baha'i president, putting that into law sends a signal: that, in this new democracy, some people are not so equal after all.

And if this principle is broken once, why stop there? Breaking it runs contrary to the fundamentals of what protesters across the Arab world charged through the fear barrier and on to the streets to claim: that everyone is worthy of the same rights and the same dignity. This isn't a good sign in Tunisia, the Arab country that has been lauded for its exemplary shift from dictatorship to democracy.

Islamist politics aren't incompatible with pluralism - the Turkish example of a religious party running a secular country is testimony to that; in both Tunisia and Egypt, the main Islamist parties have cited it as the aspirational model. Still, there is concern that a strong Islamist presence in politics could encourage attacks on the streets, while those in power won't do what it takes to tackle that - in actions, not just in slogans.

In Egypt, the period of post-revolution uncertainty has seen more sectarian violence than the already bad years under ousted president, Hosni Mubarak. According to the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations, 100,000 of Egypt's 9 million Christian Copts left between March and September this year. This NGO puts the departures down to escalating threats and attacks from Salafists and a lack of protection from the authorities.

The figures are from before October, when protests over a church attack were brutally put down by the Egypt's interim military council, killing at least 25 and injuring 300 people. At the time, Egyptian state TV (guarded by the military) falsely reported that Coptic demonstrators had fired on the army and urged people to take to the streets to defend the nation's soldiers. Now, Christian community leaders in Egypt say the exit numbers are rising and call for urgent action to stem the flow.

If minority rights aren't set as the cornerstone of new Arab democracies, they are loose threads that can be pulled to unravel the whole picture. For centuries, colonizers and tyrants alike have abused diversity to gouge false divisions into populations they control, privileging one group over another to create social separation and weakness.

European occupiers would routinely do this with Christian and Jewish populations in the Middle East and north Africa. It's the main reason Arab countries were all but emptied of Jewish communities during the 1940s and 1950s - the ideologies of Zionism and Arab nationalism being the thread-pullers that yanked at opposing ends of hyphenated Arab-Jewish identities and forced them to fall apart.

Even now, the Egyptian military council tried to use those Christian protests in October to poison the pro-democracy movement with sectarianism. And as bloodily repressed Syrian protesters continue to chant: "The Syrian people are one," President Bashar al-Assad still claims the protests are all about fueling disunity.

Professor Fadi Daou, chairman of Adyan, the Beirut-based foundation for interreligious studies, says national identity defined by citizenship rather than religion is the key to safeguarding against the sort of sectarianism that ravaged Lebanon. In the post-revolutionary period, he sees this as the new role for Arab civil society: "To make sure government is accountable to a more inclusive national identity and to ensure that social diversity is respected - between religions, within religions and between the religious and non-religious." In common with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke on this subject recently, Daou sees the treatment of minorities as the litmus test of the success of Arab uprisings.

When I spoke to Jacob Lellouche, Tunisia's only Jewish candidate for the country's free elections in October, he too highlighted pluralism as a core component of the Tunisian uprising. "People made this revolution happen because they want democracy and dignity," he said. "If you look for these things, you see that minorities and their rights are a part of these goals."

Tunisian Jews, a deeply rooted but diminished community of fewer than 2,000 people (once numbering more than 100,000), are integrated and involved. When Israel recently suggested that Tunisian Jews might want to migrate, one community leader suggested in reply that Israel might want to mind its own business.

Tunisia's President Marzouki has said that Jews who left the country are welcome to return - powerful words that carry trailblazing possibilities. Such dramatic signals are a great start, but all the minorities of the Middle East are going to need more than just words to achieve the true equality that protesters fought and died for.

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