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'Dark day'

October 11, 2011

Thousands marched in the Egyptian capital on Monday evening following the deaths of at least 26 people in clashes between Coptic Christians and the military. The violence has cast a shadow over upcoming elections.

Egyptian Coptic Christians shout slogans and hold crosses
Coptic Christians called for 'religious unity'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Cairo's Coptic Cathedral was filled with mourners Monday evening at the funeral of 17 Christians killed in clashes with security forces.

Thousands of people marched from Cairo's main cathedral to the Coptic hospital on Monday evening, a day after at least 26 were killed in unrest between Coptic Christians and the military. Most of those wounded in Sunday's clashes are being treated at the hospital.

The marchers called for religious unity and the removal of the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, accusing him of turning a blind eye to similar protests held by strict Salafist and other Islamist groups, which were repressed under the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The spiritual leader of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, Pope Shenouda III, declared three days of mourning, prayer and fasting for the victims, starting Tuesday. He also presided over funerals on Monday for some of the slain Christians. Egypt's Health Ministry has confirmed that at least 26 people were killed and nearly 300 wounded in Sunday's violence.

Egypt's military rulers have ordered a speedy investigation into the incident.

Peaceful protest turns violent

Around 2,000 Coptic Christians had gathered outside the state television building Sunday to protest an attack on a church a week earlier. Witnesses say at least two armored vehicles rammed into the crowd, killing several protestors. Troops then started shooting at the demonstrators. The situation spiraled quickly out of control, spreading to Tahrir Square and other parts of Cairo.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg Monday condemned the violence, with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle calling on all sides to exercise restraint.

Fires rage in Cairo
State television said protesters set fire to vehiclesImage: dapd

"It is about time that the Egyptian leadership understands the importance of religious plurality and tolerance," he said. Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Germany was very "worried" by the situation.

"We can only call on the Egyptian government to get to the bottom of these incidents as soon as possible and bring those responsible to justice," Seibert told journalists.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged the Egyptian authorities to reaffirm freedom of worship in Egypt.

"I am very concerned, very alarmed about the clashes in Cairo", said Hague.

'Dark, dark day'

Activists voiced frustration online in response to the violence, which they compared to Mubarak's crackdown against peaceful protests around the country in January.

"What happened [in Cairo] is exactly what happened on January 25," said Muslim activist Asmaa Mahfouz in reference to the start of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

"This is a dark, dark day in the military's history. This is betrayal, a conspiracy, murder. I saw bodies missing hands and legs, heads twisted away or plastered to the ground," Hossam Bahgat, a human rights activist, tweeted from a local hospital.

Pictures of smashed faces and dead bodies of people who, activists said, had been run over by military vehicles were circulated online.

'Enemies of the revolution'

The clashes add to growing frustration among activists with the army, which Egyptians accuse of attempting to assert its power even as the country pushes on with its transition to democracy. The army has denied this.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, without accusing the army outright, was quick to condemn the violence.

"Instead of advancing to build a modern state of democratic principles we are back searching for security and stability, worrying that there are hidden hands, both domestic and foreign, seeking to obstruct the will of Egyptians in establishing a democracy," Sharaf said on state television.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf
Sharaf said the violence contradicted the revolutionImage: dapd

Sharaf didn't name those "hidden hands" explicitly but later said anyone seeking to benefit from the unrest was an "enemy of the January revolution."

Concern about upcoming elections

The Egyptian cabinet vowed Monday that the violence would not derail the country's first democratic election since the toppling of Mubarak's autocratic regime in February. The election is scheduled for November 28.

Cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy said authorities would prevent "any group" from "manipulating national unity in Egypt" or "delaying the process of democratic transformation."

"The most important thing is to contain the situation, see the way forward and [take] the necessary measures to avoid any ramifications," he said.

Author: Gabriel Borrud, Wilhelmina Lyffyt (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Martin Kuebler