Egypt’s muted response to a deadly attack by its own Army on a Christian protest Sunday is furthering the anger of Christians, and threatening to escalate sectarian strife at a delicate time of transition.
Government officials have portrayed Sunday’s events as a clash with violent protesters provoked by “hidden hands” to “meddle with the country’s security and safety.” Protesters say their demonstration – protesting a recent attack on a church in southern Egypt as well as the Army’s dispersal of a protest the week before – was peaceful when it was attacked. At least 17 Christians died; most had gunshot wounds and signs of being crushed by vehicles.
While many Muslims joined Christians in mourning the victims Tuesday, others are still convinced that the Christians were the aggressors. Boula Zakie, who was hit by an Army vehicle during the attack, said he has received dozens of phone calls from Muslim friends asking why Christians attacked the Army.
“They don’t believe us,” he says. One of his friends was killed in the attack and another is in critical condition.
Egypt’s finance and deputy prime minister, Hazem al-Beblawi, tendered his resignation Tuesday over the Army attack on Sunday, but reports in state media said that it was rejected by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler. Mr. Beblawi could not be reached for comment.
The cabinet also promised to implement within two weeks a law that would ease building restrictions on churches, an area where Christians have long been discriminated against. But coming after witnesses said the Army opened fire and drove vehicles into a crowd of protesters, such measures are being rejected by many Christians. Few believe that a fact-finding committee ordered by the military will hold responsible those who killed the protesters.
“This is ridiculous. We have been talking about this law for so long, and only now they remember it?” says Karima Kamal, a columnist and author who writes on Coptic affairs. The entire government should resign, she says, and its refusal to acknowledge what happened will only spur more sectarian attacks. “This is not a response for a state or a government. It is as if nothing happened.”
Thousands of Copts and Muslims directed intense anger at the military after the funeral of some of the victims Monday, chanting angrily for the removal of Field Marshal Tantawi. Some political parties have also blasted Egypt’s military council, which is ruling Egypt during the transition from the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak.
Political figure Ayman Nour said at a press conference Monday that, “There is no partnership between us and the council now that the blood of our brothers stands between us.'' The Free Egyptians party, co-founded by Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris, issued a statement warning the military council that "continuing to handle events with force will shake the trust that Egyptians have given it.”
Yet it is unclear how far the outrage over the attack extends. The Muslim Brotherhood released a statement criticizing Christians for holding a protest, saying the time was not right. Many Egyptians saw an entirely different version of events on state television, which broadcast incendiary reports that armed Christians had attacked the Army, and said Army soldiers had died. (No names or evidence of deaths among soldiers has yet been presented to the public.)
The state television reports spurred hundreds of Muslims to take to the streets, armed with sticks, to defend the Army against what they thought were armed and violent Christians.