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.