Is there a place for Christians in the new Middle East?

The sickening violence inflicted on Coptic Christian demonstrators in Cairo on Oct. 9 shocked Egyptians, and may have ended for good whatever remaining faith democracy activists had in the country's interim military government, which appears to have orchestrated the violence. But Copts have been suffering attacks with growing regularity over the last several years, and this latest outburst only increased the fears among them that their status in Egypt, and possibly even their survival as a community, is now in jeopardy.

This is not only an Egyptian story. Just as rising intolerance drove vast numbers of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East in the 1950s and '60s, so Christians, the one large remaining minority in the region, are now feeling the heat. In the wake of a campaign of murder and forced displacement, at least 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since the fall of Saddam. Christians in neighboring Syria have clung to the increasingly precarious regime of Bashar al-Assad out of fear that the same fate could befall them should Syria's Sunni majority take control. (Druze, Kurds, and other minorities seem to be making the same calculation.)

We tend to forget that it was the Middle East that taught the world how the three Abrahamic faiths could get along with one another. In his masterful new book, The Great Sea, historian David Abulafia recounts how a polyglot Mediterranean culture of Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Catholics arose in the coastal cities of Constantinople, Salonika, Tunis, Jaffa, and Alexandria. This last, in the 1920s, had 25,000 Jews in a population of about 500,000, as well as Greeks, Italians, Maltese, and others. Abulafia writes that Omar Toussoon, a leading member of the Egyptian royal family, patronized all these groups equally while working hard to improve the economic fortunes of the city's Muslim masses.

Virtually the entire region now experiencing the convulsion of the Arab Spring lived inside the very large tent of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. Ottoman rulers welcomed the Jews who fled the Inquisition. In great Ottoman capitals like Aleppo, in modern Syria, Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Sunni Muslims lived in the same neighborhoods. "Inter-communal residential mixing" was the norm across the Ottoman empire, according to Donald Quataert, a scholar of the Ottoman period. If it all unraveled in the 20th century, Quataert writes, it is not because of "inherent animosities of an alleged racial or ethnic nature."

Quataert argues that the collapse of pluralism was not an inevitable consequence of seething inter-group resentment, but rather the work of nationalists who agitated for the creation of states, whether in Turkey, Bulgaria, or the Maghreb, and who then exploited and encouraged nationalist sentiment in order to consolidate power. Political choices, in other words, poisoned the atmosphere of pluralism -- as they later would in the Balkans, the Ottoman heartland, as well. Populist rulers can accommodate diversity, as they have largely done in today's Turkey, or they can unleash the forces of sectarianism, as they have in Iraq, where Shiites and Sunnis kill one another and both kill Christians. Older Iraqis will tell you that no one ever spoke of "Sunni" and "Shiite" when they were young; but whether in Bosnia or Iraq, sectarianism, once provoked, has a very long half life. There is no more volatile substance in the modern nation-state.

Violence against Copts in Egypt is not remotely of the magnitude of the anti-Christian pogroms of Iraq. But it has been steadily growing in recent years. The most spectacular attack took place this past New Year's Day, when 21 Copts were killed walking out of a Mass at Saints Church in Alexandria, the once-louche Ottoman capital that is now a center of Salafism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Egypt had begun 2010 with the killing of nine congregants emerging from a midnight Mass in the city of Nag Hammadi, and there had been many incidents thereafter. But the revolution in the streets erupted only a few weeks after the Alexandria bombing, and the spectacle of Muslims and Christians praying together in Tahrir Square had offered a thrilling counterpoint to the communal tensions. Indeed, Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French diplomat and author of The Arab Revolution, argues that the popular protests have forged an unprecedented solidarity between Muslims and Copts.

But acts of violence continued -- an arson attack against a church in March, then a violent clash between groups of demonstrators that left 12 dead, then another outburst at a church in Cairo's Imbaba neighborhood, with another 12 dead. The Oct. 9 demonstration was meant to protest the military government's failure to act in the face of these earlier incidents. The violence itself was probably not sectarian: Though all 24 of the dead were Copts, and many died a hideous death, run over by armored vehicles, the hired thugs and security forces who attacked the crowd were engaged in a brutal crackdown on dissent, not a targeted communal murder. But state television urged "honorable Egyptians" to defend soldiers from Christian mobs, thus seeking to convert the event into a Christian attack on the state and playing into the stereotype of Copts as outsiders. "The SCAF," says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center, using the acronym for the military government, "benefits from a sectarian narrative."

Egyptian activists were not fooled. Political reformers like Ayman Nour blamed the military for shedding "the blood of our brothers." Even the SCAF understood that it had gone too far, apologizing for the appeal to "honorable Egyptians." But the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party is very likely to gain a plurality of seats in upcoming parliamentary elections, came very close to blaming the victim, issuing a statement saying that "All the Egyptian have grievances and legitimate demands, not only our Christian brothers. Certainly this is not the right time to claim them." Hamid points out that this "uppity Christian" narrative played very well with ordinary Egyptians -- which is probably why the Brotherhood, with its fine instinct for the vox populi, chose to offer it. Hamid also notes that in their beleaguerment Copts have increasingly turned inward, producing a spiral of mutual mistrust.

There's no wishing away the anti-Coptic attitudes, or prejudices, of ordinary Egyptians. But Copts have lived with that for a long time. The big question is whether it will get worse -- and how much worse. And that will be a matter of political choices and political leadership. The Brotherhood, to its credit, has rarely catered to religious chauvinism, and, despite its Islamist appeal, has positioned itself as a spokesman for all Egyptians. Even the Salafists have not openly played the communal card. Copts continue to play a leading role in Tahrir Square; Mina Daniel, one of the Oct. 9 victims, has been celebrated as a martyr of the campaign against the SCAF. Nevertheless, Egypt feels to Copts, as well as to secular Egyptians, like an increasingly Islamist country.

It could go either way. One thing the incident proves is the danger of leaving the SCAF in power during the very long projected period of transition: Egypt's new military rulers, like the military ruler they replaced, have proved all too willing to exploit street-level resentment. Power-sharing cannot wait until a new president is elected in mid-2013 or so. Egypt's democratic forces say that they are determined not to allow themselves to be divided against one another. Let's hope so. In Egypt, and all across the former Ottoman outposts of the southern Mediterranean -- Tunisia, Libya, Syria -- it is not just democracy but also pluralism that is at stake. It would be a terrible thing, and a deeply unnecessary one, if the rise of the former meant the end of the latter.


Terms of Engagement

That Seventies Show

France's newly dominant Socialists have absorbed the lessons of American politics -- but are they planning to take the republic back to the future?

You probably didn't notice the most recent debate among the républicains. It was spirited but courteous; it focused relentlessly on the economy; it clarified differences -- and it further consolidated the apparently invincible lead of François Hollande.

Monsieur Hollande is, of course, the front-runner in the race among France's Socialists to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential race next year. Among Hollande's chief rivals is Ségolène Royal, whom Sarkozy trounced last time around, and who soon thereafter separated from Hollande, her partner -- though not spouse -- of 30 years. French politics are more solemn than the American version, but also sexier.

But the most remarkable thing about the debate, held on Wednesday, Sept. 28, is that it occurred at all. French parties have traditionally chosen presidential candidates through ballots among activists, making nomination an essentially private affair. No longer: This year, anyone who claims to subscribe to the principles of the Parti Socialiste can vote; and for the first time ever, the candidates have put themselves on public parade. Although Sarko has always advertised himself as the Disney-loving, American-style candidate, it is the Socialists who, despite their horror of capitalist vulgarity, have adopted the American system, complete with debate coaches, polls, and spin. And it has proved to be a brilliant move on their part.

The other day, Le Monde ran a post-debate analysis that any close reader of American political news would have found bewildering. The point of the piece was that the magisterial contempt with which leaders in the UMP, Sarko's party, had been treating this innovation had collapsed in the face of reality. That was interesting; but what was amazing was that UMP officials were quoted by name admitting that they had been bested. "It was a lovely democratic exercise," said one UMP deputy. "It gives a good image. We would do well to be inspired by it ourselves." Another noted that because each of the six candidates offered slightly different policy prescriptions, voters on the left could all find something to identify with -- "and this risks staying in their head even when there's only one remaining candidate." Haven't those UMP officials ever heard of "off the record"?

For those of us who have already gotten bored with the interminable GOP debates, it's touching to be reminded of the merits that others, with their fresher eyes, see in the process. The French seem slightly dazzled by their brave new populist world. I listened to a TV interview show that urgently asked, "Who are the men of the shadows?" -- the gurus, the advisors, the coaches. In the United States, of course, these figures are celebrities in their own right; the Sunday talk shows couldn't exist without them. And polls! Hollande's rivals have objected to the polls, which find him securely in the lead, because it's almost impossible to determine in advance if any given respondent will actually participate in the party ballot.

This was a race that Dominique Strauss-Kahn was, of course, supposed to win in a cakewalk. I always believed that a chief reason for the left's outrage at the sexual-assault accusations lodged against DSK, as well as at his alleged manhandling by the Manhattan district attorney, was that the party's hopes of winning in 2012 so completely hinged on him. But that's already a memory. It is Sarko now who is being sunk by scandal (see Eric Pape's "Is Sarkozy Fini?"), while the left has been buoyed by its embrace of openness. "There is a mood of hope in the left, and I think we're really post-DSK now," says Justin Vaïsse, a Brookings Institution analyst. A senior diplomat and scholar says that the debates have proved "quite refreshing and have been perceived in that way by observers, and it makes UMP, divided by infighting but compelled to support one candidate, look a bit old-fashioned."

This project of refurbishment also has an amusing François-Ségo subtext. Royal ran in 2007 on the premise that French voters had grown disgusted with the pomposities of the grand discours -- the high-flown policy declamations that define French politics at the national level -- and instead craved a politics of family values and home truths. She wound up sounding slightly weird, and not altogether real, and Sarko ate her lunch in the debates. The erudite, articulate Hollande is a traditional politician of the left -- so much so that he was having an affair with a political journalist, which is why Royal kicked him out of the house -- and now he has thoroughly supplanted his ex-partner. Hollande is the future, Royal the past. I'm told that so far they have kept a careful distance from one another.

The debate, in format, resembled the American version, circa 1980 or so. Two questioners on a studio stage -- no audience -- faced the six candidates, fanned out before them. The questions focused on policy, as did the answers. The candidates frequently interrupted one another and spoke over one another, but never heatedly. They often prefaced their disagreement by saying something like, "In all friendship...." There were only a few testy exchanges. Hollande, playing the Mitt Romney role of cautious front-runner, tried to float above the fray by summarizing the exchanges, prompting a vexed Manuel Valls, a Socialist deputy in Parliament and mayor of Évry -- and a second-tier candidate -- to cry, "François, for once, don't conclude!" Valls is a centrist, and he growled at Arnaud Montebourg, a deputy from the Saône-et-Loire department who has espoused a doctrine of "deglobalization," "No one here has a monopoly on the left." In general, however, the famously fractious Socialists surprised the public and disconcerted the UMP by sticking to the high road.

The substance of the debate would have been at least as strange to an American ear as the sober comportment. The candidates proposed responding to the financial crisis wracking Europe with an explicit industrial policy, with "a contract between young and old," with price controls and protectionism. I kept encountering the unfamiliar expression licenciement boursier, apparently a terrible thing. This expression was translated for me as: "downsizing in order to improve the standing of a company in the stock exchange." This is, of course, pretty much how Romney made his fortune. The rough American translation would be: "efficiencies." Martine Aubry, the party leader, proposed allowing employees to petition a court to replace the leadership of such a refractory firm; Royal proposed banning the practice. Told by the interviewer that her ideas were redolent of 1970s thinking, she shot back, "You could say that, and it wouldn't bother me."

The left has a very powerful wind in its sails right now. The party controls a majority of France's provinces and major cities, and last week, in a tremendous blow to the UMP, it took control of the Senate for the first time since 1958. France is already, in effect, a majority-left country. And the scandals besetting the ruling party have only begun to unwind in public: Le Monde has sued the French state after learning that secret-service agents had obtained the phone records of the investigative reporter who had been covering a scandal involving illegal campaign contributions. The paper stated in a recent front-page editorial that the affair pointed to the existence of a "black cabinet" -- a department of dirty tricks -- in the Élysée Palace.

Until now, what the Socialists have lacked is an appealing standard-bearer. Hollande may prove to be such a figure. He is a far more talented debater than his ex-partner -- and arguing well matters as much in French politics as does, say, authenticity in the United States -- and he is not an ideologically divisive figure. He has already won the endorsement of Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy's predecessor as president and UMP leader -- a startling defection and a powerful indication, according to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a historian at Science Po, that "deep-France is longing for a président normal." Filiu argues that the importance of a Hollande victory would go far beyond France because "a right-wing dominated Europe has proved unable to act collectively to face the euro crisis."

Those are, indeed, the stakes. In 2007, Sarkozy ran on a promise to change France's social contract, which, shaped by Europe's most powerful unions, offered a range of worker protections that employers found deeply onerous and that arguably put France at a serious competitive disadvantage within Europe, as well as globally. Sarkozy made some headway, but not much. A victory by the left would give France a chance to try an alternative formula, less "liberal" and more dirigiste. Returning to the statist politics of the 1970s doesn't sound like a forward-looking response to the current crisis. On the other hand, it sounds at least as plausible as the anti-state, anti-tax vision being peddled by the républicains here in America.