Egypt's New Wave of Violence

The Copts, Egypt’s largest minority, were attacked by armed forces this weekend—leaving many dead and more injured. Will a massive Muslim-Christian clash be next? Ursula Lindsey reports from Cairo.

10.10.11 3:54 PM ET

Seventeen bodies were lying in the Coptic Hospital in Cairo this Monday morning. In the hospital’s courtyard, friends and relatives gathered—dazed, tearful, and angry. They said they’d seen the bodies of their loved ones riddled with bullets or crushed when they were run over by armed personnel carriers. A woman in black screamed: “Why all this? Where are you, my Lord?”

At least 24 are dead (this graphic video shows victims at the hospital last night), and hundreds more are wounded, in the bloodiest clashes since the beginning of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak eight months ago.

It all began Sunday afternoon with a large peaceful march from the Christian neighborhood of Shubra toward the Radio and Television building in the capital’s downtown. The march was organized by young Coptic activists to protest a string of attacks on churches since the revolution. The latest incident occurred in a village in southern Egypt, where Muslims destroyed a building used for Christian services.

Father Boulos was at the hospital and in the march the day before.

The protesters “wanted to express their feelings that they are oppressed,” he said. “They just wanted to ask for their rights.”

The march was peaceful, participants say, even though it was attacked by stone-throwing crowds. But in front of the Radio and TV building, emotions ran high and scuffles erupted. Footage from Egyptian State TV shows armed personnel carriers began driving through the crowd, crushing demonstrators. Protesters say the army also opened fire.

Egyptian State TV reported that the Coptic protesters had opened fire on the army (an unsubstantiated claim that the minister of information later said presenters made because they got “carried away”) and called on Egyptians to come into the streets to “defend the army.” Downtown Cairo erupted into chaos: cars were set on fire and crowds of Christians, Muslims, police and the army fought running street battles among clouds of tear gas. Some Muslims fought alongside Christians, chanting anti-army slogans.

Clashes also broke out in Alexandria, Aswan, Luxor, and Assiut.

At the hospital this morning, Copts focused their anger on the armed forces.

“God’s punishment on you, Tantawi,” said an elderly woman wrapped in black, referring to the head of the army council that currently runs the country. “May your children suffer as ours have.”

The hospital itself was attacked last night, said Samy Samann, 43, who lives in the neighborhood.

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“People came with guns and sticks and tried to attack this hospital,” he said. “Many of us came out and fought them. Until midnight. It was four hours of fighting.” (This video by the local news site Al Masry Al Youm shows Coptic men repulsing the attacks.)

Samaan was tired and shaking with emotion.

“I live with them [Muslims],” he said, “They are all my friends. But this time I think their mind changed, suddenly. They think we are not good people, that we have to leave this country. And we can’t: It’s our country. We will never leave this country.”

Coptic Christians are Egypt’s largest religious minority, making up about 10 percent of the population. They have lived alongside the country’s Muslim majority for 14 centuries.

There have always been tensions, especially in rural areas. The most frequent cause of clashes is the construction or renovation of churches (to which Muslims often object) and cases of conversion.

Christians also complain of longstanding discrimination, and of an Islamist discourse that is increasingly aggressive and denigrating of Christians. Ultra-conservative Islamist groups have been emboldened since the revolution, demanding the full application of Islamic law.

The Mubarak regime was criticized for fomenting religious bigotry and sectarian divisions. A terrorist attack at a church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve that killed 21, disgusted many Egyptians and may have been one of the triggers of the revolution. (Some Egyptians even suspected domestic intelligence services of being behind the attack, to legitimate the country’s state of emergency.) 

During the revolution, Christians and Muslims stood side by side in Tahrir Square, demanding Mubarak’s ouster.

But in the months since, there have been regular attacks on churches. Copts complain that the authorities have done little to stop the violence, and haven’t held its perpetrators responsible. 

The crowds at the Coptic hospital are also furious at the local media.

State TV hasn’t aired the footage of armed personnel carriers mowing down protesters again—instead, its coverage has focused on alleged acts of vandalism and violence by the Coptic protesters. Local newspapers have also shied away from criticizing the army.

Activists on Twitter, meanwhile, have been vocal in their condemnation. They point out that some Muslims participated in solidarity in the Coptic march, and argue that this is not a sectarian clash but rather one between the people and the generals.

“It feels like Mubarak is back,” wrote activist blogger Sandmonkey. “State TV lies, violence against protesters and efforts to ignite sectarian violence.”

In the midst of a flurry of emergency meetings and statements of condemnation of the violence, Egyptian authorities and many Muslims remain in deep denial over the extent and seriousness of Copts’ grievances.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has said “hidden hands” were behind the incidents, and that they would benefit “the enemies of the revolution.”

Many here worry that the clashes will derail Egypt’s first democratic elections, scheduled for November, and give the authorities an excuse to crack down further on dissent.