Violence erupts after Christians protest in Cairo
24 killed in post-Mubarak era’s worst riots
CAIRO - A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests against the military council ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
Witnesses said several protesters were crushed under military vehicles, and the Health Ministry said that about 20 were having surgery for bullet wounds.
The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay for ceding power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.
When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.
Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to block the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians’’ to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.
“Muslims get what is happening,’’ she said, adding that the government was “trying to start a civil war.’’
The protest took place against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Mubarak’s exit emboldened previously suppressed Islamists and unnerved the Christian minority. Christians had joined the prodemocracy protests in large numbers, hoping for the protections of a pluralistic, democratic state, but the surge in power of the Islamists has raised fears of how much tolerance majority rule will allow.
The most common refrain of yesterday’s protests was, “The people want to bring down the field marshal,’’ adapting the signature chant of the revolution to call for the resignation of the military’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
“Muslim and Christians are one hand,’’ some chanted.
The military and riot police, on the other hand, appeared at some points to be working in tandem with Muslims who were lashing out at the Coptic Christians. As security forces cleared the streets about 10 p.m., police officers in riot gear marched back and forth through the streets of downtown alongside a swarm of hundreds of men armed with clubs and stones chanting, “The people want to bring down the Christians,’’ and, later, “Islamic state, Islamic state.’’
“Until when are we going to live in this terror?’’ asked a Christian demonstrator who gave his name as John. “This is not the issue of Muslim and Christian, this is the issue of the freedom that we demanded and can’t find.’’
By the end of the night, as clouds of tear gas floated through the dark streets and the crosses carried by the original Christian demonstrators had disappeared, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was fighting whom.
At one point, groups of riot police officers were seen beating Muslim protesters, who were shouting, in Arabic, “God is Great!’’ while just a few yards away other Muslims were breaking pavement into rocks to hurl in the direction of a group of Christians.
“It is chaos,’’ said Omar el-Shamy, a Muslim student who had spent much of the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and returned again to help support the Christians against the military. “I was standing with a group of people and suddenly they were chanting with the army! I don’t know what is going on.’’
State television announced a curfew in downtown Cairo beginning at 2 a.m., and the civilian Cabinet, which serves under the military council, held an emergency session.
A committee headed by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was meeting to address the crisis, the Cabinet’s Web page said, with solutions based on the principle of equal citizenship. The Cabinet said it would not allow any interference with “national unity’’ or “the path of the democratic transition,’’ noting that a first step, the registration of parliamentary candidates for elections Nov. 28, will begin Wednesday.