Democracy Lab

Running from the Arab Spring

Syria isn't the only place with a refugee problem.

The Syrian war has spawned countless snuff videos, but the one [NSFW] that surfaced last week sets a new standard of horror. (Seriously, think hard before clicking on that link.) It shows jihadis killing two prisoners who are accused of aiding the regime of Bashar al-Assad. One of the executioners pulls out a large knife and saws off the men’s heads. What makes the clip even more unbearable is that this isn’t happening in some darkened room. The execution site is surrounded by a big crowd of enthusiastic spectators with camera phones, who roar “Allahu Akbar (God is great) after each beheading.

It’s hard to know whether the video is authentic, and almost impossible to determine its origins. But in an important sense this is beside the point. What counts is that the whole scene has been staged with a clearly sectarian intent: the two victims are specifically identified as Christians (one of them, indeed, is described as a “bishop,” though no names are mentioned). If I were a Syrian Christian, I don’t think I’d be spending much time analyzing the clip’s contents. I’d be packing my clothes, looking for a way to get out of the country as fast as possible.

June 20 marked World Refugee Day -- a good occasion to reflect on a situation that some are already calling the worst refugee crisis in recent memory. Some 1.5 million Syrians have already fled to neighboring countries, aggravating economic and political pressures across the region; another 4.5 million are internally displaced. The outflow has exacerbated political tensions in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, all places ill-equipped to deal with big influxes of refugees. What many outsiders fail to notice, though, is that Syria isn’t the only place in the Middle East and North Africa where the dramatic changes of the past few years are prompting people to vote with their feet -- also to potentially destabilizing effect.

Just take the Copts. By a conservative estimate, some 7 million of these adherents of an ancient version of Orthodox Christianity live in Egypt -- or at least they did until recently. (The numbers involved are notoriously hard to nail down, since counting them has always been a controversial issue in the Muslim-majority country. Coptic clerics tend to give much higher estimates for the size of the community.) But lately, large numbers of them have been leaving, many of them joining relatives already in the United States, Canada, Australia, or Italy. Some sources in Egypt say that 100,000 Copts have applied to emigrate since the revolution. (And those are just the legal émigrés.) Samuel Tadros, an expert in religious freedom at the Hudson Institute in Washington, says that the congregation at his Coptic church in northern Virginia has expanded by 50 percent over the past two years, and that Coptic communities elsewhere in the United States have been recording similar gains. He stresses that no one can know the precise numbers of those who have chosen to leave.

What’s clear, though, is that pressures on the community are intensifying. “People are scared,” Tadros says. “They’re scared about the future, scared about the direction in which the country is headed.” He cites a “dramatic increase in sectarian attacks” since the Muslim Brotherhood took power after elections last year. The most recent incident occurred in April in the town of Al-Khosous, resulting in the deaths of six Copts and one Muslim. Copts accuse the security forces of standing by when marauding gangs attacked their churches or homes, and the sense of vulnerability is compounded by the Morsy government’s apparent unwillingness to take a stand on the issue. The sense of uncertainty is so pronounced that thousands of Copts are turning up in Georgia, a country where they’ve had little or no presence until now. But they seem to feel safe there -- apparently because Georgia’s population is predominantly Orthodox.

Revolutions can be hard on minority groups. Though autocrats may manipulate ethnic or sectarian divides, they rarely allow such rifts to emerge into open conflict. In some cases (as in Syria), they promote minorities to control other, bigger segments of the populace. Once a dictatorship collapses, though, minorities can easily fall prey to sentiments of revenge or prejudice suddenly unleashed. (In the American Revolution, many African Americans preferred to fight on the side of King George III, since his generals promised freedom to any slaves who chose to serve with the British. Independence-minded patriots included many slaveholders.)

Another dynamic rarely noticed by outsiders: attacks on one minority group can ratchet up anxiety among others who feel comparably vulnerable. Some Copts say that they were unsettled by the killing [warning, graphic images] of four Shiites in Egypt earlier this week. The number of Shiites is small (ranging from 800,000 to 2 million), but many feel themselves to be victims of long-standing discrimination by the Sunni-dominated authorities. The fact that they're now under physical attack sends an ominous signal to all the authors who don't belong to the country's majority Sunni faith.

Aside from Syria, the Arab Spring country that’s suffering the most from the problem of displacement is probably Libya. Tunisians close to the government estimate that around 1 million Libyans are now living within their borders, having fled their homeland’s continuing instability and economic weakness. Inside Libya itself, internal refugees from the 2011 civil war pose a big political problem. Earlier this month, some of the 35,000 people from the desert town of Tawergha tried to return to their homes, but were barred from doing so by a local militia that accuses them of complicity with the Qaddafi regime. Until the impasse is solved, the refugees will continue to live in grubby camps outside of Benghazi and Tripoli.

Still, of all the problems that plague the post-revolutionary Arab Spring, sectarianism is probably the biggest one currently prompting people to flee their homes. And it’s not just the Christians who are suffering, of course. In Syria, it’s gotten to the point where membership in a particular group automatically determines whether others see you as an enemy or a friend (even though your real loyalties may be more ambivalent) -- and the real danger is that this pattern may spread to other countries that are trying to cope with similar divides. (The war in Iraq, which enflamed these tensions, certainly has a lot to do with it.) The majority Sunnis (who comprise 74 percent of the population) are now arrayed mainly against the various minority groups (Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Shiites, Yezidis). The Alawites, the group that claims Bashar al-Assad among its number, appears to be sticking with the regime (perhaps because they have nowhere else to go).

But members of the other minorities are choosing to emigrate, building on their networks of overseas relatives or even to historic homelands. One of the most curious examples of the latter is the Circassians, a small ethnic group of Muslims from the Caucasus who fled the Russian Empire back in the nineteenth century when a Tsarist campaign drove them out of their homelands along the Black Sea. Some 120,000 of them lived in Syria before the war began. Many are now seeking to return to Russia, a prospect not exactly welcomed by the Kremlin, which fears a corresponding rise in separatist nationalism.

It’s a peculiar example of the unpredictable side effects generated by the Syrian catastrophe. As the conflict drags on, its consequences will ripple out through the region in ever more complex and destabilizing ways. By the time it’s over, the ethnic makeup of the Middle East may be unrecognizable.

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Why Iran Can't Reform

Many commentators are hailing the results of the Iranian presidential election as a victory for popular choice. But that feel-good narrative misses the bigger story.

So a "moderate" has won the Iranian presidential election. He's a moderate who advertises himself as a sly defender of Tehran's nuclear aspirations. He's a moderate who's been warning Western countries to stay out of Syria's civil war (where Iran has been giving massive support to the beleaguered dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad). He's a moderate who was allowed to run only after a host of more pragmatic candidates were cut from the field by the current leadership's vetting commission. And he's a moderate who's made it clear that he's not about to tamper with the principle of clerical rule that stands at the core of the system Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established in 1979. So should we be celebrating?

Well, the upside is that Hasan Rowhani won on Friday's election because Iranian voters were intent on showing their leaders that they prefer as their president a man who suggests even the most minute revisions reigning order (such as vague promises to rein in the widely hated morality police). But the fact remains that, even if Rowhani wanted to implement even more far-reaching changes, Iran's current power structure gives the president minimal space to do so. Iranian voters may have signaled their desire for reform by voting for Rowhani, but that doesn't mean they're any likelier to get it.

And that's just the way that Khomeini, the father of Iran's Islamic Revolution, would have wanted it. From the very beginning he and his followers aimed to transform Iran into a state where the Shiite clergy had the final say. The Khomeinist constitution passed in 1979 (and revised a few years later) included some opportunities for limited political competition by embracing direct elections for local government, parliament, and the presidency (with the proviso that only approved candidates were allowed to run). But no one elected the Supreme Leader, the man who holds ultimate power. That's because, as clergyman-in-chief, he embodies the principle of divine rule. God's sovereignty trumps the people's.

In reality, of course, it's actually a very small group of human beings at the top who interpret God's wishes for earthly ends. Indeed, as became clear soon after the revolution, Khomeini's vision of clerical rule didn't even extend to all of the Shiite clergy; those leaders of the clerical establishment who disagreed with his theocratic vision -- a group both more numerous and influential than most people in the West have ever realized -- were systematically marginalized and outmaneuvered until they were silenced altogether. They included, most remarkably, Khomeini's handpicked successor, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who fell from grace when he began criticizing human rights violations committed by the revolutionary regime. He ultimately died in obscurity after enduring long years of intense persecution.

That should tell you all you need to know about Iran's capacity for reform. There are few who would seriously dispute the imperative for change. Today, the Islamic Republic is an international pariah and an economic basket case, a supporter of Bashar al-Assad and a close ally of North Korea; it's also a country whose governing class faces growing demands from its own citizens for greater freedom and political participation. Thirty-four years after the revolution, however, it's become increasingly obvious that the system established by Khomeini has ossified -- and is now correspondingly brittle. The limited space for democratic participation originally allowed by the first generation of revolutionary leaders has steadily yielded to unvarnished authoritarianism.

And that is, above all, the doing of today's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During his 14-year rule, Khamenei has consistently followed the Khomeinist principle of keeping real power confined to a tiny elite. When reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami tentatively attempted to widen the room for personal freedom during his presidency in the 1990s, Khamenei successfully marshaled conservative forces to block those efforts. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has now completed his second and last term as Iran's president, caused headaches of a different kind. Khamenei fended off Ahmadinejad's populist efforts to build himself into a rival power center, but also had to support him when angry Iranians protested perceived vote tampering during the presidential election of 2009. The big protests that followed the vote prompted Khamenei to deploy every means of repression in his toolbox -- and also inspired him to apply particularly harsh criteria to the process of candidate vetting in this year's election, just to be on the safe side.

In the process Khamenei has steadily shrunk the circle of the ruling elite. By excluding fellow 1979 veteran and political heavyweight Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from this year's presidential election, Khamenei broke the last link connecting his own rule with the hallowed revolution. Over the years, he has come to depend primarily on the Revolutionary Guards Corps, an organization originally established as a parallel military designed to defend the revolution from its enemies at home and abroad. Today's Guard consists largely of opportunists who have exploited their power to gain control over broad swathes of the economy. They have a big stake in the current status quo -- and they also happen to command many of the guns needed to protect it.

So can we imagine a scenario in which the Supreme Leader himself decides that Iran needs reform -- and inaugurates a corresponding program? That's about as likely in the case of Khamenei as it was with Leonid Brezhnev back in the 1970s (and it's an entirely apt comparison, considering that both the old USSR and today's Iran managed to mask catastrophic economic mismanagement with the help of their vast oil reserves). The Revolutionary Guard would resist any polices to introduce greater competition into the economy, since that would probably interfere with their current rent-seeking privileges. Khamenei's theocratic allies would push back against any attempt at political liberalization, since doing so would implicitly question the allegedly divine underpinnings of clerical rule. What, then, would serve as the Supreme Leader's source of legitimacy? Claiming a mandate from God is one thing; but once it's been relinquished, it will be impossible to recover it.

And after Khamenei? I guess it's always possible that the current elite could beget an Iranian version of Mikhail Gorbachev -- though I suspect that the fate of the USSR (like Iran, a multiethnic state tugged apart by many restive minorities) and the dreary story of his ultimate downfall are not examples that Iran's rulers wish to emulate. They are, presumably, all too aware that Iranian citizens are hungry for more freedom than the present regime can concede without undercutting its own argument for existence.

We know that the Chinese Communist Party has carefully studied the collapse of other authoritarian regimes and one-party systems, exhaustively examining transition experiences from Mexico to Poland in order to draw lessons for the protection of its own power. There is little evidence that Iran's ruling clergy has done anything comparable -- and it's easy to imagine why they won't.

As for Rowhani, let's expect him to make a few modest gestures in the direction of reform. But it will be a big surprise if he manages to go beyond that. He knows that it will be his own neck on the line if he steps out too far.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images