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Gerbi/Associated Press photo by Abdel Magid al-Fergany

Minority report

Libya | How Libya's new government treats religious and ethnic minorities will be its litmus test of 'democracy'

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

For decades David Gerbi dreamed of returning to his native Libya to restore ancient Jewish sites and reconnect with the homeland of his youth. Pogroms in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict forced Gerbi's family into exile-together with most of Libya's remaining 5,000 Jewish residents. Leaving everything behind, they boarded a boat for Italy and began a new life in Rome. Gerbi was 12 at the time.

This past summer, he returned to Tripoli with a newfound hope: With Libya's revolution he saw a window of opportunity, created relationships with the rebels, and joined the National Transitional Council (NTC). Using his expertise as a psychoanalyst, he helped patients in the Benghazi Hospital and aided the rebels. He hopes to become a member of the new government as a representative of the exiled Libyan Jewish population.

Gerbi's hopes echo those of others backing the revolutions that have toppled and killed dictators across the Middle East and North Africa: crushed tyrants replaced by democracy-driven governments and leaders who champion minority rights and fair elections. But as more observers begin to wonder if the Arab Spring is turning into an Islamist Winter, David Gerbi's mission in Libya serves as a litmus test for the country's interim government and the fate of minorities within Libya's borders.

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Seldom does one hear of Jews returning to Arab countries. But Gerbi said Libyans flocked to the vacant and dilapidated Sla Dar Bishi Synagogue on Oct. 7 as he began the massive renovation project, curious about what was inside. Only the elders in the community knew about Tripoli's Jewish history-one that dates back to the third century B.C.

Gerbi spoke to the local sheik and found a group of men willing to help clean the synagogue for a $2,000 fee. Everything proceeded smoothly and they "hoped to show the rest of the world the difference between the Qaddafi regime and the new regime."

It wasn't long before several hundred people began protesting his mission with signs saying, "There is no place for Jews in Libya," and, "We don't have a place for Zionism." The crowds wanted him forcibly removed from his hotel. "The police came and denounced me and the archeologist announced that I damaged an archeological site. This was my synagogue where I prayed. Qaddafi turned it into an archeological site," Gerbi said.

After meeting with Libyan and Italian diplomats, Gerbi agreed to return to Rome on a military flight, feeling slighted by the NTC. "Before they captured Qaddafi they were saying 'democracy, freedom,' and all these words. But then after they got Libya free it was not the same," Gerbi said.

The dramatic death of Col. Muammar Qaddafi on Oct. 20 solidified the NTC's grip on Libya and ushered in a new era after 42 years of autocratic rule by the eccentric and unpredictable ruler. Little is known about the leaders behind the NATO-backed rebellion. Just days after Qaddafi's death, NTC leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil declared Sharia law as the main source of legislation and lifted the ban on polygamy.

Jack David, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said he is concerned but not surprised: The NTC drafted a document last December stating its intention to adopt a legal system based on Sharia law. He predicts a wide reach for Islamists in the coming months and years: "I believe that you'll see Islamists come to the fore and have a much more dominant role in Libya and in Egypt and in other places in the Middle East than has been the case before."

That doesn't bode well for Gerbi or for Christians and black Libyans still living in Libya. Foreign Christians were allowed to worship publicly during Qaddafi's rule but the small population of indigenous Christians and Muslim background believers (Muslims who convert to Christianity) worshipped in secret. Open Doors president Carl Moeller expects more of the same in light of recent calls for the implementation of Islamic law.

Disturbing reports of ethnic cleansing have added to the concern. According to Amnesty International, dozens of black Libyans from Tawergha have been beaten and detained. Other reports claim that the town's 30,000 residents were forced into refugee camps by rebels from nearby Misrata. The two towns have been locked in a bitter feud with Misrata rebels accusing their neighbors to the south of siding with Qaddafi and raiding their town and raping their women. The NTC has done nothing to curb quests for revenge.

David says Libya holds "no particular strategic interest" (some would argue that oil and location increase the stakes) but claims we need to be more cautious going forward: "The United States' largest interest in that small country of 4 or 5 million people is to assure that it doesn't become a haven for launching terror and assisting Islamists in other places in acquiring power. And we do have interest in obtaining some security for the weapons that have fallen to al-Qaeda and other hands in Libya over the past several months while we were dallying with our policy."

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