‘The people want to topple the field marshal’

2011-10-10 09:26

Cairo – Massive clashes raged yesterday in downtown Cairo, drawing Christians angry over a recent church attack, hard-line Muslims and Egyptian security forces.

At least 19 people were killed and more than 150 injured in the worst sectarian violence since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.

The violence lasted late into the night, bringing out a deployment of more than 1 000 security forces and armoured vehicles to defend the state television building along the Nile, where the trouble began.

The clashes spread to nearby Tahrir Square, drawing thousands of people to the vast plaza that served as the epicentre of the protests that ousted Mubarak.

Last night, they battled each other with rocks and firebombs, some tearing up pavement for ammunition and others collecting stones in boxes.

At one point, an armoured security van sped into the crowd, striking a half-dozen protesters and throwing some into the air.

Christians blame Egypt’s ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since the ouster of Mubarak.

The Coptic Christian minority makes up about 10% of the country of more than 80 million people.

As Egypt undergoes a chaotic power transition and security vacuum in the wake of this year’s uprising, Christians are particularly worried about the increasing show of force by the ultraconservative Islamists.

The Christian protesters said their demonstration began as a peaceful attempt to sit in at the television building. But then, they said, they came under attack by thugs in plain clothes who rained stones down on them and fired pellets.

“The protest was peaceful. We wanted to hold a sit-in, as usual,” said Essam Khalili, a protester wearing a white shirt with a cross drawn on it.

“Thugs attacked us and a military vehicle jumped over a sidewalk and ran over at least 10 people. I saw them,” he said.

Wael Roufail, another protester, corroborated the account.

“I saw the vehicle running over the protesters. Then they opened fired at us,” he said.

Khalili said protesters set fire to army vehicles when they saw them hitting the protesters.

Television footage showed a military vehicle ploughing into the crowd and also showed Coptic protesters attacking a soldier, while a priest tried to protect him.

One soldier collapsed in tears as ambulances rushed to the scene to take away the injured.

A government-funded newspaper, Al-Akhbar, reported that some of the protesters snatched weapons from the soldiers and turned them on the military. Others pelted soldiers with rock and bottles.

At one point, a group of youths with at least one riot police officer among them were seen dragging a protester by his legs for a long distance.

The protest began in the Shubra district of northern Cairo, then headed to the state television building along the Nile where men in plain clothes attacked about a thousand Christian protesters as they chanted denunciations of the military rulers.

“The people want to topple the field marshal!” the protesters yelled, referring to the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Some Muslim protesters later joined in the chant.

Later in the evening, a crowd of ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafis turned up to challenge the Christian crowds, shouting, “Speak up! An Islamic state until death!”

Armed with sticks, the Muslim assailants chased the Christian protesters from the TV building, banging metal street signs to scare them off. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were.

Gunshots rang out at the scene, where lines of riot police with shields tried to hold back hundreds of Christian protesters chanting, “This is our country!”
Security forces eventually fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. The clashes then moved to nearby Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising against Mubarak.

The army closed off streets around the area.

The clashes left streets littered with shattered glass, stones, ash and soot from burned vehicles.

Hundreds of curious onlookers gathered at one of the bridges over the Nile to watch the unrest.

After hours of intense clashes, chants of “Muslims, Christians one hand, one hand!” rang out in a call for a truce. The stone-throwing died down briefly, but then began to rage again.

In the past weeks, riots have broken out at two churches in southern Egypt, prompted by Muslim crowds angry over church construction.

One riot broke out near the city of Aswan, even after church officials agreed to a demand by local Salafi Muslims that a cross and bells be removed from the building.

Aswan’s governor, General Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyed, further raised tensions by suggesting to the media that the church construction was illegal.

Protesters said the Copts are demanding the ouster of the governor, reconstruction of the church, compensation for people whose houses were set on fire and prosecution of those behind the riots and attacks on the church.

Last week, the military used force to disperse a similar protest in front of the state television building. Christians were angered by the treatment of the protesters and vowed to renew their demonstrations until their demands are met.

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