The massacre of Christians in Egypt last weekend raises uneasy questions about the future of the Arab Spring and the direction in which it may now be heading.
Sunday's protests were launched in response to the burning of a Church in Aswan; Cairo's protests started in the impoverished district of Shubra, home to a large number of Copts, and also a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. From there, Coptic Christian demonstrators marched to the center of Cairo and proceeded to Maspero Square, where the state television building is based: state broadcasters are also accused of fanning anti-Christian sentiments.
This episode of violence against Christians in Egypt is not an isolated incident. Churches and their congregations have been repeatedly attacked since before the revolution, and has only gotten worse. Since the removal of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Christian community has grown increasingly fearful of what they regard as ineffective protection being offered to them against radical Islamists. On Sunday, it was the Army itself that cracked down on the protesters; they killed 25 and injured hundreds more.
Similar problems persist in Libya as well. David Gerbi is an exiled Jew who lived in Italy but returned to Libya to join anti-Gaddafi rebels.
The Associated Press reports that:
[Gerbi] said his fellow rebels called him the "revolutionary Jew" and that he was thrilled when he rode into the capital with fighters from the western mountains as Tripoli fell in late August.
The euphoria of the moment did not last. When Gerbi entered a derelict Synagogue in Tripoli and attempted to clean it he was warned off by authorities who said that if he did not leave, a mob would kill him.
On the eve of Yom Kippur last week, a demonstration against Gerbi was held; protestors brandished placards that read, "There is no place for the Jew in Libya." These protests took place in both Benghazi and Tripoli, where some even tried to storm the Corinthia Hotel where Gerbi was staying.
To diffuse growing tensions, members of Libya's Transitional Government met with Italian diplomatic representatives and agreed that Gerbi should leave the country. He returned to Rome last Tuesday on a military aircraft.
Gina Bublil-Waldman, the Libyan-born President of a San Francisco based organisation called JIMENA, or Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, said it was too soon for Gerbi to have returned.
"I really do not believe that the Libyan people are ready to reconcile with the past and their history, and the wrongs that they have done to the Jewish community," she said, stating that Gerbi's efforts were sincere and honorable.
In the wake of these incidents it is easy to become despondent about the prospects for the Arab Spring. Yet, Michael Totten offers some insightful analysis for Commentary Magazine:
Hostility toward Israel and the United States is de rigueur in the Arab world, but there's hostility and then there's hostility. Iraq today is hostile to Israel and not exactly a staunch American ally, but it's not even remotely as hostile to either as it was when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Iraq's hostility to Israel is entirely passive. It's no more sinister or dangerous right now than Kuwait's.
Post-Qaddafi Libya is not even remotely likely to become an Israeli ally any time soon, but the new government, at least in its current form, is a lot friendlier toward the United States than Qaddafi's was and has at least floated the idea of normalization with Israel.
While regime change is not always bad, to regard the status quo of dictatorial and despotic regimes in the Middle East as the best of a bad situation is to lack the courage of our convictions in the universality of values like freedom and pluralism.
After all, just how friendly were the old regimes anyway? Despite maintaining a peace agreement with Israel, Mubarak did little to further relations with his Jewish partners across the Sinai. Meanwhile, Qaddafi was actively hostile to Western interests. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad maintains a quasi-peace with Israel; when he does not want to maintain a quasi-peace, he uses Lebanon as his proxy. He enjoys close relations with Tehran, and supports both Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Without him installed in Damascus, neither terrorist group could operate the way it presently does.
Although the current sectarian hostilities in both Egypt and Libya are deserving of unreserved condemnation, they should not be used as an excuse to dismiss the entire Arab Spring. There are still grounds for cautious optimism, if only truly liberal and secular forces in the Arab world were afforded the right support and protection they need. Practically this means bolstering the young, secular liberals who first led the revolution in places like Egypt. Groups such as the 'April 6 Youth Movement' have received little support from both Washington and London while their more conservative counterparts in the Muslim Brotherhood have been feted for years. The default thinking in the West that they are the natural heirs to Mubarak reveals a real poverty of aspiration from leaders who have often spoken of the need to spread democracy in the Middle East.
For years the only legitimate public form of political expression in the Arab world was to condemn Israel and the United States. This prejudice has been deeply ingrained and will take time to unravel. Revolutions are messy, confused and conflicted processes, and rarely linear. The onset of the French Revolution in 1789 was quickly followed by the bloody and brutal "Reign of Terror," during which tens of thousands perished as political and sectarian differences gave way to the wholesale executions of supposed "enemies of the revolution," including the men who had started it.
Similar reprisals followed the Zanzibar revolution in 1964, which saw local forces wresting power from the ruling minority of Arabs. Following that revolution thousands of Arabs and Asians were beaten, raped and killed.
The same tumultuous post-revolutionary experience now seems to be gripping the Arab states which have cast off years of dictatorial rule. Matters will invariably worsen before they get better – but there can still be a bright dawn to this entire process.
The United States and Europe were slow to back the protesters in Egypt and have made few meaningful statements about the ongoing massacres in Syria. For too long they considered the robed reactionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood as the only – and likely – heirs to the status quo in the Middle East, and consequently forged close links with them. Bohemian youth movements, such as the liberal "April 6 Youth Movement" were shunned by the State Department and London's Foreign Office.
While the radicals begin to rampage in Egypt and elsewhere, the West needs now -- more than ever – to identify its liberal partners in those countries and support them with the political and intellectual capital they will need to succeed. Failing to do so, could turn our fears of a more intolerant and insular Middle East into a self-fulfilling prophecy.