Why did Egypt's Army violently suppress Christian protesters? (VIDEO)

Egypt's Army fired Sunday on thousands of Christian protesters demonstrating against a recent church burning, leaving at least 24 people dead. Some say the Army is provoking sectarian violence as a pretext for staying in power.

Ahmed Ali/AP
Fierce clashes erupted Sunday between Christians protesting a recent attack on a church and the Egyptian military, leaving at least 24 people dead and scores injured.

A deadly attack by the Egyptian Army on a Christian demonstration Sunday evening left as many as 24 dead, and incited sectarian violence that opened a dark new chapter on Egypt’s future.

The attacks by the Army, and the state media coverage of them, appeared to many observers to be a direct attempt to incite fighting between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. They raised sharp questions about the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military council currently ruling Egypt, and its stated intention of guiding Egypt through a transition to democracy. Some say it is provoking the violence as a pretext for staying in power, or at least preserving the privileges and independence of the military.

“Why does the Army and the government kill us?” asked Boula Zakie, tears streaming down his face and onto his black shirt as he sat in the Coptic Hospital and watched his friend being carried past on a stretcher amid the din of wailing. “We feel we are not from this country anymore. I feel this country is going to be Islamic. The Army is the one who shoots the Christian people, and says to the Muslims, ‘Here, take your country now.’ And they forget we are the ones who were here first.”

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The violence first began when civilians attacked thousands of Christians who were marching to the state television building to protest what they say was the state’s weak response to the recent burning of a church in southern Egypt. But the march continued, and witnesses said that as soon as it entered the area in front of the building, Army armored personnel carriers drove deliberately into the crowd, crushing and killing people, and troops opened fire.

Protesters threw rocks at the Army. At least 17 Christian civilians were killed. Three soldiers were also killed, according to state media, which said the death toll is 24 and that hundreds were wounded. But the government has since provided no evidence that soldiers died. Egypt's information minister Osama Heikal said that state television presenters had acted "emotionally" while broadcasting events.

An overwhelmed Coptic Hospital

Many of the casualties were taken to the Coptic Hospital, whose small, stiflingly hot morgue was overwhelmed by the 17 bodies it received. Family members screamed and beat themselves with grief as they identified their sons, fathers, brothers, and fiances among the dead. Some had been killed by gunshot wounds, and others appeared to be crushed by vehicles.

Multiple people there, including Mr. Zakie, described Army armored personnel carriers aiming for protesters, and said demonstrators were peaceful when the Army attacked. Zakie was limping from being hit by a vehicle.

Upstairs in a hospital bed, Yousef Gamal pulled back a bandage to show the bullet hole that pierced his thigh. He said the armored vehicles drove into the demonstrators and began shooting as soon as they entered the square. “They are the ones who are supposed to protect us,” he said of the Army. “But instead they are the ones who are killing us. I feel like I’m done with this country.”

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the events is the level to which they succeeded in inciting Muslims against Christians, says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which has tracked sectarian incidents for a decade. Unlike the outpouring of Muslim sympathy when a Christian church was bombed at the beginning of this year, he says, now there is little sympathy. “There are either calls for unity, or there is blame for Christians for having started this violence and for having attacked the Army,” he says.

“And," he adds, "we must blame state media here.”

State TV's report differed from ground reports

As the Army was running over and shooting protesters, Egyptians watching state television heard an entirely different story. The channel reported that armed Christians were attacking the Army, and broadcast appeals for Muslims to go to the street to defend the Army.

“So it is no coincidence or surprise that large sectors of the Muslim majority feel that what happened was the Christians' fault and continue to blame Christians for what happened,” he says. “And that adds more anger and resentment and estrangement for the Coptic community and especially the Coptic youth,” a scenario that does not bode well for Egypt’s future.

Hundreds of people responded to the incitement and went out to the streets armed with sticks and sometimes knives, and attacked Christians. Around 10 p.m., hundreds of youths holding sticks marched toward the Coptic Hospital, chanting “Islamic, Islamic.” When they neared the hospital, they clashed with the mostly Christian men in front of the hospital.

Several gunshots rang out, and the two sides fought with rocks and Molotov cocktails for two hours with police and Army nowhere in sight. Cars and garbage containers were set alight, blazing high into the night sky as Coptic youths called their friends and asked them to bring reinforcements. One Christian youth siphoned gasoline from the tank of car parked on the street to use for Molotov cocktails. “They want us to be Muslim but we won’t leave our country," he said. “This is a civil war,” said another who gave his name as Emad.

Witnesses: the Army and mobs cooperated in attacking Christians

Along with official incitement, there was cooperation between the Army and the angry mobs attacking Christians, according to some witnesses. Hani Bushra was attacked in downtown Cairo, near a running battle between protesters and the Army, by a man who demanded to know what he was doing.

“He grabbed my wrists to see if I had a cross tattoo,” as many Coptic Christians do, says Mr. Bushra. When he didn’t find one, he asked for Bushra’s name, which is not obviously Muslim or Christian. “Then he asked my religion, and when I said Christian, he yelled ‘I’ve got a Christian and he has weapons,’ ” says Bushra.

After the crowd started to beat him, Bushra headed to a police officer for protection. As he waited with police, he watched members of the Army rally a crowd of men who did not appear to be with the police or the Army for a charge on protesters.

At another point, the Army welcomed a crowd shouting “Where are you Christians? Islam is here,” he said. Bushra says none of the civilian men appeared outwardly to be from the salafi strain of Islamic extremists, who have sometimes clashed with Christians, or to be paid thugs, sometimes used by the Interior Ministry. “There was just this desire to protect the country from the Christians who [they were being told] are bearing arms and shooting people randomly,” he says.

Government blames 'outside forces'

In a televised speech, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf blamed the violence on outside forces, a common scapegoat for the military rulers. He also called for an investigation.

“These events have taken us back several steps," he said. "Instead of moving forward to build a modern state on democratic principles we are back to seeking stability and searching for hidden hands – domestic and foreign – that meddle with the country's security and safety."

In a statement, the US embassy did not place blame on the Egyptian Army, which the US gives about $1 billion in aid each year.

“We are deeply concerned by the violence between demonstrators and security forces in Cairo Oct. 9, which resulted in a number of deaths among both sides," the statement said. "We note Prime Minister Sharaf's call for an investigation, and appeal to all parties to remain calm.”

Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says an independent, impartial, and immediate investigation is the most pressing priority right now.

“Anything short of this will perpetuate the impression that the Army is siding with extremists and is biased against Christians,” he says. “But judging from how the Army dealt with reports of abuses from its own officers since February, we are not optimistic that the Army will actually establish accountability for what happened.”

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