The recent clashes in Cairo between peaceful Coptic protestors and Egyptian security forces are only the latest sad example of an old and recurring phenomenon: persecution of native non-Muslim minority communities in the world of Islam.
The sequence leading up to this bloody event is a familiar one: a Coptic church in Upper Egypt was burned by Islamist extremists, and there was no reaction from the authorities. Frustrated Copts gathered in Cairo’s Maspero neighborhood to protest the absence of security around their places of worship; the scene turned ugly when Army units fired upon demonstrators, with a resulting death toll of 25, most of them Copts, and scores injured. Appalling was the manner of the violence—video shows an armored personnel carrier running people down. There could not have been a more callous expression of the disregard by the Egyptian armed forces for the lives of Egyptian Christians.
Back in the early days of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, joint patrols by Muslims and Copts were established to guard churches in Cairo and Alexandria against attacks by religious militants; today those encouraging scenes seem remote and unreal. The expendable status of Copts was underscored shortly after the massacre when Egypt’s prime minister stated that it was all a conspiracy by “hidden hands” aiming to foment religious unrest in his country—a clear whitewash of the Army’s brutality. To top it all off, no one in the government actually resigned, even though the finance minister tried to but then in fact stayed.
Coptic Christianity in Egypt dates back the time of Mark the Evangelist, before the arrival of Islam. For much of the past 1,400 years under Islamic rule, the Copts lived as second-class citizens, deprived of their freedoms and rights while laboring under several crippling restrictions imposed on them in return for being allowed to remain physically in their ancestral land as adherents to Christianity. Today, they comprise a community of 8 million, or around 10 percent of Egypt’s population.
Like other Christians indigenous to the region, the Copts have faced a difficult dilemma since the start of the Arab Spring. On one hand, their beliefs and values do not allow them to condone the dictatorial and corrupt practices of the repressive regimes that have ruled over many countries throughout the Middle East. On the other, they are genuinely alarmed about what may follow the collapse of these regimes, and whether militant Salafi Islamists will replace them.
Such fears are not exaggerated, and those who harbor them are not delusional. In Iraq, Copts and other Arab Christians have witnessed the destruction of nearly half of that country’s ancient Christian communities—Chaldeans and Assyrians—since the 2003 American invasion. Too many attacks on the Copts and burnings of their churches have occurred this past year to be ignored, or for matters in Egypt to return to business as usual. Christians in Syria are deeply worried about the adverse long-term effects on their community of the ongoing bloodshed in their country. Lebanon’s Maronites and other Lebanese Christians, until recently constituting the last remaining free native Christian community in the entire Middle East, have emerged after decades of strife and occupation only to see steady erosion of their prized freedoms alongside significant demographic shrinkage.
At the heart of Christian Arab apprehensions lies a shaken trust in both the staying power and shelf life of Sunni-Muslim moderation. Christians fear that once the dust of the Arab Spring settles, Islamist radicalism could sweep away in its path all the well-meaning, liberal-minded, pro-democracy leaders within the opposition movements. This fear characterizes the present decisive juncture for all Arabs; now is indeed a defining historic moment for moderation in the vast world of Sunni Islam. Will the Arab Sunni moderates, the silent majorities in their respective societies, prove capable of preventing a slide toward intolerance and violence brought on by the fanatical few in their midst? This is the ultimate question of the Arab Spring, but already the Copts appear to have their grim answer: Egypt’s moderate and pluralist-minded revolutionaries are proving impotent in the face of determined religious extremists and hostile armed forces of the indifferent authorities.
Only robust and tenacious moderation that refuses to be cowed by religious militancy can reclaim the gains scored thus far in the Egyptian revolution and move the country and the region forward toward an inclusive, democratic future. This is what the restoration of Egypt’s leadership role in the Arab world means. And if the Army generals show signs of excessive complacency and comfort in their seats of power, the moderates need to remind them that they are only there as a temporary transition to real democracy. Whoever is in charge in Egypt at any given point in time has the foremost duty to uphold the law and provide effective security for all Egyptian citizens—regardless of creed. This means attacks on churches and on Copts themselves must cease and perpetrators be punished; otherwise, the revolution will have failed.
Failure today would be catastrophic for everyone. Last century’s Arab intellectuals borrowed abysmally from the problematic ideologies of nationalism and socialism responsible for wrecking Europe. They created hideous local hybrids that gave us both the Arab military dictatorships and the subsequent Islamist backlash. As for liberal democracy, since it was the product of the colonial powers and of American imperialism, it remained suspect. These patterns must never be repeated.
The elephant in the room of the Arab Spring is now the mistreatment of minority communities—Christians and others—across the Arab world. If moderates allow these minorities to become habitual targets of extremism with impunity, thereby accelerating the exodus of Arab Christians already underway from the region, they will have lost their historic chance to induce a lasting positive transformation of dismal Arab realities. Moderation would then be on its way toward its doom. The West can only play a supportive role in all this; the brunt of the challenge to see the Arab Spring through to success on this vital indicator of healthy pluralism and acceptance of minorities falls squarely on the shoulders of Egypt’s and the other regional Sunni moderates. Can they deliver?
Habib C. Malik is an associate professor at the Byblos campus of Lebanese American University.