The overwhelming majority of the Arab world is Muslim, and so it would seem to reason that the two words on everyone's lips in that region since January -- revolution and democracy -- should hinge on the participatory, popular will of that population. However, a crucial test of the potential gains of the Arab Spring will also rest in the status of the region's non-Muslim minorities. In this sense, the standing of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority since the #25 January Revolution -- some 8-10 million people, roughly 10-12 percent of the country -- warrants the recent global attention that has turned to this community. And so far, the Arab Spring has not been kind to the Copts.
During the peak of euphoria in Tahrir Square in early February, many Egyptian Christians set aside their grievances with the Muslim majority, and the latter their discrimination against the former, to unite in toppling Hosni Mubarak. However, the protest banners had barely been re-furled when ultra-conservative Salafi groups, largely an underground movement under Mubarak's repressive security state and strongly influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalism, made their presence felt. A long-forming pattern of anti-Christian violence has since increased across the country, often prompted by intolerant Salafi preachers and perpetrated by local Muslims intent on reminding Copts of their second-class status.
- On March 4, a mob of Muslims in the village of Sol rioted against Copts and their property, angered by controversy over a rumored romance between a local Christian man and Muslim woman. This mob sent Christian residents running to their homes for safety, before it burned the town's main church to the ground (reportedly after looters mistook Coptic-language liturgy for books of black magic). Two Copts were killed in the violence.
On Sept.30, a Salafi imam incited a group of several thousand Muslims in the village of al-Marinab to march on a local church after Friday prayers. The Christians' offense: they had built a dome on their more than 70-year-old church after receiving all necessary approval from the Aswan governor. After the mob attacked and burned the church with impunity, the governor claimed he had given no such permission and implicitly sanctioned the mob's actions.
This last incident led to horrific violence on Oct. 9, when the Egyptian military brutally suppressed a demonstration of mostly Coptic protestors in the Maspero district of Cairo, killing 27. Unbelievably, the SCAF has denied all responsibility for those events, despite a plethora of video and eyewitness evidence to the contrary, and it has even sought to punish some of the more vocal participants (Christian and Muslim) of the Maspero protest. In this case, the transitional government didn't just overlook an attack on Copts: it perpetrated the violence.
On Oct. 16, a public school teacher reportedly incited a group of Muslim students in his class to beat to death Ayman Labib, a Coptic classmate, for wearing a cross. As of this writing, police have charged two students with the murder, but the teacher (who reportedly turned to the class after seeing Ayman's cross and asked, "What are we going to do with him?") and others who might have been involved in the incident have so far avoided any serious investigation into their incitement or complicity.
These are all tragic events, but why do they matter? Why focus on the status of a minority community, when the big picture of the Arab Spring is really about the collective will of Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenis, Libyans and Bahrainis rising against their respective autocracies?
The reason is simple: No nation can claim to uphold, implement or even pursue democratic ideals when it subjugates and oppresses its minorities, as Americans finally began to understand during their own Civil Rights movement. The pattern of violence and discrimination against the Arab world's largest religious minority (roughly the same population as New York City) by members of the country's religious majority, and by the ruling military that is supposedly shepherding the country toward civilian rule, hints at a terrible price that Egypt may pay for its revolution, regardless of its original, noble intentions. The Arab Spring, in Egypt and beyond, will thus be meaningless if it exchanges one form of oppression for another.
Concerns about the emergence of Islamist factions as the most organized and mobilized groups in the region's new democratic processes, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its small but vocal population of intolerant Salafis, are indeed valid. They are an expression of genuine, well-founded apprehension about the future of Arab societies governed by Islamists and the rigid, archaic interpretations of shariah that most of them share. Renowned Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, himself a Muslim, has voiced such deep concern
: "We can expect them [Islamists] to use the democratic system as merely a ladder to power, which they will climb up and then kick away so that no one else can use it." Non-Muslims will likely be the first and certainly not the last victims
of such a future.
To this end, the United States and its allies should do everything in their power to assure that the Copts, along with other non-Muslim and Muslim minority communities, receive the benefits of the Arab Spring, rather than become its victims- as many fear has already begun to happen.
Kurt J. Werthmuller is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.