Clashes between mostly Coptic demonstrators and military police outside the state television building in central Cairo on Sunday have left at least 24 people dead and 213 injured. Egypt’s interim government held an emergency meeting and imposed a curfew on Tahrir Square and downtown Cairo, while clashes were also reported from Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria. The violence was the worst since the 18-day uprising that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
The Coptic demonstrators were marching to protest the destruction of a church in Aswan province in southern Egypt when “thugs” attacked them. Military police responded with what demonstrators say was excessive force. More than 1,000 security personnel were deployed as well as armored carriers some of which were driven into crowds, killing at least four Copts. Demonstrators threw rocks and firebombs, sometimes tearing up the pavement to hurl in chunks. After the military started attacking them, demonstrators set a number of vehicles on fire, including two armored carriers, private cars and buses. Three soldiers were among those killed.
Several Coptic bishops led the protests, in which photos of Mustafa al-Sayed, the governor of Aswan province where the church was destroyed, were set on fire. Al-Sayed had reportedly said that the Copts built the church without the required planning permission, after which the church was attacked.
Reporting from Cairo, Al Jazeera‘s Rawya Rageh said that the protest was supposed to be peaceful, but people started throwing rocks from balconies. The Coptic demonstrators had chanted “the people want to bring down the field marshal,” a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling SCAF. The chant echoed one heard during the February uprising, “the people want to bring down the regime.” Then, as Sunday night wore on and the chaos subsided, groups of people roamed the streets yelling pro-army and pro-Islam slogans including “The people want to bring down the Christians.” A call for a truce rang out after several hours: ”Muslims, Christians one hand, one hand!”
After touring the area where the clashes occurred, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said, “what happened in front of the state TV building is exactly what happened on January 25″ and voiced his fear that the renewed violence could endanger Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition. Sunday’s violence casts a shadow over the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for November 28; candidates are to register this Wednesday.
Egypt’s Military Seeks To Hold Onto Power
The violence is deeply troublesome to activists, who suspect that the ruling military wants to maintain its hold on power, while ostensibly handing over control of day-to-day concerns. Human rights activist Hossam Bahgat tweeted from the hospital:
What happened today is unprecedented in Egypt. 17 corpses crushed by military tanks. I saw bodies missing hands and legs, heads twisted away or plastered to the ground.
While clashes between Christians — who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million people – and Muslims have occurred since the uprising, both Christian and Muslim activists say that the violence was “not due to sectarian differences but was directed at the army’s handling of the protest.” Magdy el-Serafy said on Twitter, “This is a dark day in the military’s history. This is betrayal, a conspiracy, murder.”
While the military will seek to portray Sunday’s clashes as sectarian violence, “Egypt’s broader political elite, and particularly its increasingly brazen junta” are primarily responsible, writes Jack Shenker in the Guardian:
It should come as no surprise that Sunday night’s violent clashes, which again brought death and chaos to Cairo’s streets, took place on a day that saw many other developments underline the febrile power struggle at the heart of the Egyptian capital.
Bloodshed will capture the headlines, but the quieter moves by Egypt‘s military rulers and the plainclothes thugs whose motives increasingly appear inseparable from the army elite are also worth mentioning: the rapid shutting down of a television station that had been broadcasting live footage of the mayhem; the earlier announcement that military tribunals for civilians would remain operational in certain circumstances (despite a public outcry against them); a violent assault on a university strike in Alexandria; and the ongoing tussle over electoral law, which some political forces believe is designed to kill off genuine moves towards democracy.
Collectively, the day’s events illuminate something that has been clear to many on the ground for a long time: that despite its co-option of revolutionary rhetoric, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is doing everything in its power it can to stifle and frustrate meaningful change.
Invoking sectarian tension is a tried and true means by which those in power in Egypt take care of their own interests: Mubarak’s government had done the same, routinely fanning “religious animosity as a self-preservation measure.”
Is Egypt’s nascent democracy being undermined by those — including Tantawi and the SCAF — who claim to be its supporters?
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Photo of the headquarters of Mubarak's National Democratic Party taken in October 2011 by maltman23