Coptic Christians have good reason to be worried in the new Egypt. The popular revolution, led by secular young democrats who successfully overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, also unleashed the darker prejudices of some Muslim Egyptians against their Christian compatriots, who represent about 10 percent of the country’s population. The violence last weekend – in which thousands of Copts protesting the recent burning of a church were reportedly attacked by thugs and Egyptian security forces – is but the latest example of the Arab Spring’s ugly underside.
Last month’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo offered an earlier example. For hours, Egyptian police and army stood aside as protesters demolished the embassy’s security wall and ransacked the building. Nor did this attack seem to be the work of Islamist groups. Rather, according to one eyewitness, the crowd was “a combination of soccer hooligans and pro-democracy protesters.”
Of course, anti-Coptic, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments are not new in Egypt, but now they may find expression through mob violence, or through the actions of the security forces themselves, reflecting popular prejudices. Such incidents serve as a reminder that the extraordinary flowering of political freedom in Egypt, as elsewhere, comes with the risk of what Edmund Burke called the “tyranny of the multitude.”
Libya, another Arab country embarking on a hopeful transition to democracy, is also susceptible to this problem. Last weekend, crowds reportedly gathered in Tripoli and Benghazi demanding the deportation of David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew who had fled to Italy in 1967 and returned earlier this year to participate in “the building of a new democratic and pluralistic Libya.” A psychoanalyst by profession, Gerbi first volunteered his time in Benghazi treating rebel fighters for post-traumatic stress disorder, and later traveled to Tripoli where he began cleaning up a long-abandoned synagogue, which he hoped eventually to reopen. This action apparently provoked demonstrations calling on Libya’s provisional government to expel Gerbi and to prevent other Jews from settling in the country.
These incidents suggest that intolerant passions are not far below the surface in Egypt and Libya. Indeed, governing authorities in both countries appear to be aware of such dangers: Egyptian security forces did ultimately come to the aid of Israel’s besieged embassy officials, the country’s military rulers are now holding urgent talks with representatives of the traumatized Coptic community, and at least two members of Libya’s National Transitional Council stood alongside Dr. Gerbi in Tripoli and called on anti-Jewish protesters to disperse.
But one thing seems clear: It wouldn’t take much to exploit these ugly sentiments – or to fan them into something even more dreadful and dangerous.