THE DOWNSIDE of the disintegration of Yugoslaviaâ€™s autocratic state was the tragic unleashing of powerful, suppressed ethnic tensions that led to bloody war. Is theÂ â€œArab Springâ€ in danger of going the same way, unshackling not only those longing for democratic pluralism but sectarian and tribal bigots? In Syria there is bitter resentment against minority ruling Alawites, Bahrain is cracking down on its Shia majority, tribal tensions are fuelling Yemeni and Libyan fighting . . . in each country, a Pandoraâ€™s box of combustible, violent buried sectarianism.
In Cairo, too. The transitional government now faces on its streets its biggest test since the February overthrow of Mubarak. Over the weekend fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 dead, 220 wounded and two churches in flames.
Ongoing tensions between Orthodox Coptic Christians and ultra-conservative Salafist Muslims had been fuelled by false claims that Copts were holding against her will a Christian convert to Islam in Cairoâ€™s Church of St Mina. According to police, a Muslim, Yassim Thaabet Anwar from a city up the Nile, had come to the Copt neighbourhood of Imbaba looking for his wife who he claimed was now a Muslim. She had recently been kidnapped, he insisted, and held in the church. Mobs of Muslims set fire to St Minaâ€™s and later to the nearby Church of the Virgin Mary.
It was a familiar story. A two-year dispute had only on Saturday been finally defused when a woman unhappily married to a Coptic priest finally gave a TV interview in which she said she remained a Christian and had never attempted to convert to Islam. That and other similar controversies had been used as rationale for the October attack on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad that killed more than 51 people during a spate of suicide bombings. Twenty also died in attacks on a church and the Coptic community in Alexandria in January, and a further 13 in clashes in March in Helwan.
Copts, who constitute some 10 per cent of Egyptâ€™s population, claim security forces stood by over the weekend â€“ as in the past â€“ as the violence unfolded. The authorities have now belatedly promised to crack down â€œwith an iron handâ€ while key Muslim religious leaders have joined politicians in deploring the Salafist attacks. These do appear to have limited support â€“ Muslims and Christians were involved in moving demonstrations of unity during the protests that overthrew Mubarak. It is to be hoped that is the spirit that will prevail.