In 623 AD the majority Jewish population of an Arabian settlement named Yathrib, now known as Medina, looked with probable benign interest at the arrival of an itinerant preacher named Muhammad bin Abdallah and a hundred or so of his followers from the town of Mecca 250 miles to the south. The Jews had lived in Yathrib for centuries, with a history that stretched back to their exile from Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Roman Emperor Titus in 73 AD. They worked hard to make a living, and were known for their olive groves and their craftsmanship. They also maintained their faith, with rabbis teaching and guiding them from their Scriptures.
Harsh living conditions and wars in the Yemen to the South had forced Arab tribes such as the Khazraj to also wend their way to Yathrib in the generations before the arrival of the preacher. Uneducated and seeking employment, the Arabs worked for the Jews but the relationship was not always a good one. The Arabs often stole from the Jewish agricultural settlements, with the Jews threatening retaliation. At the same time, Arab women who had a high infant mortality rate sometimes gave their newborn infants to the Jewish women to be raised so the children could have a chance to live and grow.
When some members of the Khazraj tribe led by Abbas ibn Ubada (I've told the story here) met the preacher at a fair near Mecca, they realized that with his leadership they might be able to gain the upper hand over their Jewish rivals if he came to Yathrib. The preacher had been trying for 13 years to persuade any tribe to accept him as its leader, and saw this as his golden opportunity. He went to Yathrib anticipating that he would be able to persuade both the Jews and the Arabs to welcome him as a Prophet (I've told this story as a three-part series here and here and here). When the Jews rejected his message he turned against them. He and his army destroyed their olive groves, appropriated their property, and expelled them from the city. In a single day Muhammad slaughtered as many as 900 men and boys by beheading them and dumping their bodies into a mass communal trench.
Muhammad could have used his influence to develop a prosperous working relationship with the Jews, but he did not. Of utmost importance to him was that he be acknowledged as a prophet, and rather than cooperate with the rabbis he attacked them. Rather than unite the desert expertise of the Arabs with the industrial and agricultural skill of the Jews to develop trade caravans he could send to Damascus and Yemen, he found it easier to simply waylay the caravans of others. He could have coexisted with the Jews in peace and prosperity, but he failed.
Thirteen hundred years later in the middle of the 20th century, the Arabs of Palestine also faced a unique opportunity for prosperity and coexistence with the Jewish population of the newly-formed nation of Israel. Just as the Jews arrived from Europe to establish a homeland, many of the Arabs had migrated in the preceeding few generations from countries such as Yemen and Iraq to seek employment in Palestine. The Arabs were unwilling, however, to accept the new Waaqia Siyasi, or political reality. Leaders including Yasser Arafat and others amassed personal fortunes while promising their Palestinian followers that someday they would all gather together for As Salat fil Quds (prayers in Jerusalem). Sixty years later, the Palestinians languish by the millions in poverty and refugee camps scattered throughout Lebanon, Gaza, and the rest of the area. Rather than seek peace, many still live in hatred and dream of Intiqam (revenge). They could have worked it out, but they failed.
Following the 25 January Revolution, Egypt now faces the same opportunity for freedom, prosperity, and coexistence with its non-Muslim citizens that Muhammad encountered in Yathrib and the Palestinians faced in Israel. Under the influence of Muhammad, Egypt has been reluctant to allow Copts positions where they have authority over Muslims. Other than a few token Christian Ministers in the government and members of Parliament, few if any Copts are department heads - let alone directors - of Egyptian hospitals and universities. Copts are rarely, if ever, appointed judges where they administer justice to Muslims. Muslim women are not allowed to marry Coptic men, and it is inconceivable in today's Egypt to imagine a Coptic President.
Is it possible that Muslims in Egypt can break away enough from Muhammad, can leave him far enough behind, to really accept the Copts as equal in every way in their own country? Is it possible that every barrier preventing the Copts from advancing in every way can be removed in Egypt? Removing references to religion from Egypt's constitution will be a beginning, but only a beginning. Removing the prejudices placed by Muhammad in the hearts of his Egyptian followers will be a much greater challenge.