They were united in their drive to topple Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak. But Christians and Muslims have now reverted back to violent sectarian fighting, sparking fears of new chaos in the country.
Copts and Muslims stuck together during the anti-regime protests
A number of Egyptians on Thursday pointed the finger at the country's army for the death of 13 people during conflicts between Muslims and Coptic Christians in Cairo earlier this week. Quoting the website of the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, German news agency dpa said one man, killed on the way back from work, was "definitely shot with government-issued bullets," his brother told the newspaper. Another protestor alleged he saw the army shoot a man.
Egypt is experiencing the worst outbreak of religious violence since President Hosni Mubarak was toppled last month. In addition to the 13 people killed late Tuesday in the working class Cairo district of Moqattam, more than 140 were injured. Muslims had confronted Christians blocking a main road in protest of an arson attack on a church in a village south of the capital. Homes and factories were torched in the unrest and the Egyptian military fired shots in a bid to control the riots.
On Wednesday, the Egyptian army forcefully cleared Cairo's Tahrir Square after armed men attacked hundreds of pro-democracy activists. Stone-throwing skirmishes raged, and activists were gathering sticks and stockpiling rocks to defend themselves.
Police to be redeployed
Christian Coptic and Muslim clashes took a violent turn
Egypt's new cabinet, led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, said it was watching the tensions between Muslims and Christians "with concern." Following its first meeting on Wednesday, it warned of a "counter-revolution" by diehards of the old regime. The country's military council, who took charge after Mubarak stepped down, has also called for national unity, warning of the dangers of anarchy.
In a statement, the cabinet said it had "ordered the swift return of police forces, in their full capacity, back to the streets" and "urged citizens to cooperate with the police." No functioning police force has been in place since Mubarak stepped down. The police was despised under the president as an enforcer of his autocratic rule.
US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington had no indications that the military condoned the violence or might be behind it. The US called on the military authorities to prosecute those behind the sectarian clashes.
"We have urged the Egyptian transitional government to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice," Toner told reporters. He called on Egyptians to "remember the sense of unity" they had when they called for Mubarak's ouster in Tahrir Square.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Egypt, as well as Tunisia next week, as the first Cabinet-level Obama administration official to visit either country since unrest exploded across the region in January.
"I intend to convey the strong support of the Obama administration and the American people, that we wish to be a partner in the important work that lies ahead," Clinton told a congressional panel on Thursday.
ElBaradei will run for office
Meanwhile, reformist oppostion figure Mohamed ElBaradei announced that he will run in Egypt's presidential election this year as long as a new democratic system is in place.
ElBaradei was expected to announce his candidacy for president
"When the door of presidential nominations opens, I intend to nominate myself," ElBaradei said on his first live talk show on the privately-owned ONTV channel. He also said he would vote against constitutional amendments being put to a referendum on March 19, calling for a new constitution instead.
The Nobel laureate and former head of the UN nuclear agency said that the new constitutional amendments were "superficial." He appealed to Egypt's military rulers to scrap them or delay the vote on them.
"The current constitution fell," ElBaradei said. "It would be an insult to the revolution if we decided to retrieve this constitution." The proposed changes limit the terms for a president to run to two four-year terms. They also open the door for independents and opposition members to run. But the 68-year-old ElBaradei said the changes didn't limit the powers of president or give enough time for political parties to form.
Calls for a different timeline
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said when it took over power it would hold a parliamentary election in June followed by a presidential ballot six weeks later. But ElBaradei said there should be a new constitution, a presidential vote and then a parliamentary vote instead.
"We are going in the opposite direction," ElBaradei said. The army's plan to hold the parliamentary vote in two months' time, before a new constitution was even drawn up, would exclude most Egyptians from the voting process, he added. Critics have said the timetable was too soon for parties to organize. This gave remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage.
"If we go ahead with these amendments, this means we would have a parliamentary election within two months where 80 percent of Egyptians, the silent majority, would not have a chance to participate in a real parliamentary process," ElBaradei said.
Author: Sabina Casagrande (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)
Editor: Rob Mudge