Analysis: This year’s revolutionary wave in the Arab World has already toppled several dictators. But as the “Arab Spring” turns to Autumn, incidents like last weekend’s attack on Coptic Christians in Cairo offer a grim reminder that the region’s troubles
The "Arab Spring" has by now become the "Autumn of Disgruntlement" -- particularly in highly populated Egypt, the key country in the Arab world. Ridding the nation of its dictator, Hosni Mubarak, didn't only create social fault lines based on creed. It also opened the way for a governing military council that in many ways represents an even stricter regime than the previous one; within a few months, military courts have convicted more civilians than were convicted in 30 years under Mubarak.
Mainly, what's been exposed to the light of day are the demons that Arab societies carry within themselves – demons that on the one hand were controlled and repressed by the former regime, and that on the other were the object of targeted disinformation.
The attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few weeks back shows that a movement that was at its outset happily devoid of the old hatreds towards Israel and the United States is partially engaging with those old hatreds -- spurred on by Turkey. What's happening now in Libya is a good example of how deep anti-Semitic conditioning in Arab societies is.
In Libya, former dictator Moammar al-Gaddafi made a point early during his long reign of going after Jews. By 1970 he'd chased Jewish Libyans out of the country. Earlier this year, one of those exiled Jews, David Gerbi, joined the rebels and helped free Libya. When he tried to clear up rubble in Tripoli's synagogue, which had been closed for decades, and to pray, angry demonstrators demanded he leave the country. They even brandished placards in Hebrew stating that there was no room in Libya for Jews. Gerbi has left the country.
Violence erupts in Egypt
The violence against the Christian Coptic minority in Egypt is another example of the difficulty Middle Eastern societies have in dealing with a varied ethnic and religious mix in their populations.
Over 80 million people live in Egypt. More than 90% are Muslim; 8% are Christian. The largest Christian group is Coptic, and they claim that both society and the government discriminate against them. Religious conflict between Muslims and Copts keeps manifesting over and over. The violence this past week-end, when 24 people died, was a case in point.
There have been numerous attacks in Egypt against Christian targets in the last few months, and the Copts complain rightly about biased reports in the Egyptian media and about a security apparatus that is apparently little oriented to preventing and investigating such acts of violence.
Religious minorities in the revolutionary countries are generally anxious – and with good reason. The majority Muslims appear to perceive their countries as Muslim-only and have little patience for communities like the Christian ones, even though Christianity has long historical ties to the region.
It is a fact that Middle Eastern societies have over the past two decades become markedly more conservative – and more Muslim-oriented. That goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the world is often seen in terms of a Muslim "us' that exists separately – and often in conflict with – "the others," which generally refers to the secular Christian West.
This type of identity politics, supported just as much by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood as it was by autocratic rulers, sees Muslims as a group being pressured by the West. In this world view, their own Christian minorities played the role of a kind of fifth column for the West, whose task was supposedly to "infiltrate" Islam.
Who benefits from the chaos?
Obviously, not all Muslims share this outlook on the world. Many of the Arab Spring's young, urban revolutionaries were looking more to hook up with Western models than split further from them. But there are also a large number of groups that would benefit from an escalation of religious tension.
One of them is the Saudi Arabia-backed Salafists, for whom democracy represents an abomination. It is difficult to say whether foreign powers have a hand in the many attacks against Christians in Egypt. But it can be assumed that Saudi Arabia, for example, doesn't have a lot of interest in seeing this revolution come to a "good." A "bad" outcome would better serve their efforts to discourage democracy in their own country.
The same goes for Egypt's military powers that be, and for the people that remain from Mubarak‘s old government. The first attacks on Cairo's Coptic demonstrators came from well-organized thugs who may well have been hired by die-hards of the Ancien Régime. The first reactions of the military were also disproportionately brutal – it was almost as if the leadership was determined to create as much chaos as possible.
Because the more unrest and violence there is in Egypt, the more people will start calling for a strong and authoritarian state. On the other hand it would be too easy to see dark powers at work here. The strategy of fanning religious tension can only work if there is already existing mistrust between the different societal groups.
It is not unusual, when a dictatorship comes to an end, for all the unresolved and conflicting issues of a society to erupt on the surface. We experienced this with Eastern Europe, where in many cases, the transition from a communist system was accompanied by very turbulent political developments.
Arab societies are just beginning to face what will perhaps be even more turbulent conflict with their own demons and inner contradictions. What happened after the fall of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, is a cautionary tale showing just how much destructive force these ethnic and religious conflicts can unleash.
The young rebels driving the Arab Spring wanted to rid their societies of the old obsessions. The question is: this time around, are the modernizers going to be able to prevail against the obfuscating old men?
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Photo - Gigi Ibrahim