by Rhodri C. Williams
In skimming OpenDemocracy’s latest analysis of the Arab Spring, I came across a curious pair of coincidences. The superficial one involves ten percent, that being the percentage of the Egyptian population made up of Coptic Christians, as well as the population of a set of North African and Sahel countries centered on Libya composed of the Tuareg people. The less superficial coincidence relates to the effect of years of allowing these minorities to be used as a scapegoat.
The more obvious case is described by Nelly van Doorn-Haarder and relates to Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt that have come under increasingly violent attack since the 1970s and tend to be blamed for their own misfortune: “Justifications for the attacks abounded: a village feud, two merchants fighting, Copts had raped a Muslim girl. Attacking Christians became the new normal; somehow they deserved what happened.”
Harking back to the Economist’s plug for an Arab Spring guided strictly by individual rights of the civil and political variety last May (and my response), the Coptic Christians probably make up one of the most favourable examples for this viewpoint. They are not only a minority that has its home in Egypt (e.g., has no clear secessionist agenda), but also one that suffers from egregious discrimination in the civil and political arena.
A great deal could be done to redress their situation, in other words, through measures ensuring effective equality, e.g. without having to go as far as endorsing any group-specific rights for them. Moreover, the incentives to take such steps should exist – after the most recent rioting, the BBC reported that the violence had not only caused the biggest stock market slide since last March but could also derail parliamentary elections set for next month if it continued.
On the other hand, the Tuareg present a more complicated scenario, raising issues that the Economist’s formulation of human rights cannot necessarily answer. As a transnational ethnic and linguistic minority, the Tuareg of the Sahel are in a similar situation to the Kurds – a nation that had the same potential, in principle, as many others to form a state, but which was ultimately hit with the uti posseditis stick and ended up as a series of contiguous minorities in states dominated by others.
In a fascinating analysis in OpenDemocracy, Hugh Brody notes that this fate may explain why the Tuareg of Libya (well, some of them) have turned out to be the one group demonstrating unswerving loyalty to the Ghaddafi regime clear through to the bitter end. Citing a prescient (pre-Arab Spring) commentary on the Tuareg by Jeremy Keenan in Al-Jazeera, Brody notes that many countries in the region had found it expedient to accuse the Tuareg of Al Quaeda ties during the late, unlamented era of the Global War on Terror.
By doing so, these countries were in a position to forge valuable ties with Western security forces and simultaneously continue longstanding depredations against Tuareg land and natural resources. However, they left a legacy of bitterness that translated into an otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Colonel Ghaddafi, the only leader in the region who had seen a tactical interest in doing anything to ameliorate the Tuareg’s situation (notably through preferential economic treatment rather than any meaningful political autonomy).
In light of their situation, the Tuareg present a dilemma to the new Libyan authorities as a group, rather than as individuals, and a sustainable resolution of the conflict is likely to require guarantees of some degree of recognition of this group identity, rather than individual guarantees of equality. The last word goes to Hugh Brody, who summarizes both the nature of the problem and the nature of any meaningful solution:
Thus have the Tuareg come to be at the centre of Libyan events, for which many of them may find themselves paying a dreadful price. They have had few friends, and may now have increased the animosity of their old enemies. The Libyans who are taking over their country need to find the fullest and most intelligent understanding of the history that has shaped the lives and decisions of the Tuareg. They must bring the Tuareg a new justice rather than yet another level of retribution.