Christian Caryl

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.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola