Citizens who oust dictators often face the question: What comes next? Despotic rule leaves behind few entrenched institutions other than confessional or ethnically based ones. So, transitional countries are finding that ending autocracy frequently does not bring fundamental rights equally to all members of the public.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution of January 1979 swept a Shiite theocracy into power, contests for political change around the Middle East have taken on sectarian overtones. Ousters of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak, and now uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Emir Al-Sabah al-Ahmad of Kuwait, and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain have often had the effect of pitting religious and ethnic blocks against each other.
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Iraq and Syria have witnessed civil war between religious sects. In Iran and Egypt, the removal of strongmen has led to further repression of minorities. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on 25 September, U.S. President Barack Obama urged countries to break the "cycle of sectarian violence" so political transitions can be successful.
The Shiite ayatollahs have cracked down harshly on Iranians yearning for confessional and communal rights. Sunnis (8 percent), Bahais (1.8 percent), Armenian and Assyrian Christians (0.2 percent), Sufis (0.1 percent), Zoroastrians (0.03 percent), and Jews (0.01 percent) among Iran's 75 million citizens are tarred as disloyal to the nation. Sunnis are the one religious minority with sufficient numbers and resources to challenge the dominant group. Comprising of Kurds (20 percent), Arabs (2 percent), and Baluchis (2 percent), they are responding with insurrection.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 should have marked the beginning of an Iraq in which the Shiite majority (65 percent), Sunni minority (30-32 percent), and Christian minority (3-5 percent) jointly crafted a country without tyranny. But civil war fuelled conflict between Sunni Kurds and Arabs against Shiite Arabs within the population of 31.1 million. Assyrian-Chaldean Christians were caught amid the bloodletting. Numbering 1.4 million prior to 2003, there are fewer than 500,000 Iraqi Christians left now. Thus far in Iraq's political transition, two de facto states exist--one for Sunnis of Kurdish ethnicity (20 percent) and another for Iraqis of Arab ethnicity (75 percent) which is divided between Sunnis and Shiites.