Egypt on Alert After Clashes Between Christians, Military

Monday, 10 Oct 2011 10:51 PM

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Egyptian authorities ordered a fact- finding committee to investigate clashes between Coptic Christian protesters and security forces that left at least 25 dead.

The violence began Oct. 9 when several hundred Egyptian Christians, protesting a recent attack on a church, came under assault by people in plainclothes and were then confronted by security forces, witnesses said. The army later imposed a curfew until 7 a.m. yesterday in the center of Cairo, the capital.

“This was not violence between Christians and the army, nor was it violence between Christians and Muslims; there were thugs involved,” said Father Youssef Samir, a Coptic priest. Police in riot gear directed traffic yesterday along the Nile River, where a burned-out car and smashed glass remained from the violence. Funerals for many of the victims were held.

Earlier in the day, several hundred Christians pelted police with rocks outside a Cairo hospital in fresh clashes the day after 24 people died in the  riots that grew out of a Christian protest against a church attack. Sunday's sectarian violence was the worst in Egypt since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf warned in a televised address that the riots were another setback on the country's already fraught transition to civilian rule after three decades of Mubarak's authoritarian government.

"These events have taken us back several steps," Sharaf said. He blamed foreign meddling for the troubles, claiming it was part of a "dirty conspiracy."

Similar explanations for the troubles in Egypt are often heard from the military rulers who took power from Mubarak, perhaps at attempt to deflect accusations that they are bungling the management of the country.

"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," Sharaf said.

The clashes Sunday night raged over a large section of downtown Cairo and drew in Christians, Muslims and security forces. They began when about 1,000 Christian protesters tried to stage a sit-in outside the state television building along the Nile in downtown Cairo. The protesters said they were attacked by "thugs" with sticks and the violence then spiraled out of control after a speeding military vehicle jumped up onto a sidewalk and rammed into some of the Christians.

Most of the 24 people killed were Coptic Christians, though officials said at least three soldiers were among the dead. Nearly 300 people were injured.

The latest clashes Monday broke out outside the Coptic hospital where many of the Christian victims were taken the night before. The screams of grieving women rang out from inside the hospital and some of the hundreds of men gathered outside held wooden crosses. Empty coffins were lined up outside the hospital.

There were no word on casualties from Monday's clashes.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's 85 million people, blame the ruling military council for being too lenient on those behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks since Mubarak's ouster. The chaotic power transition has left a security vacuum, and the Coptic Christian minority is particularly worried about a show of force by ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis.

The ruling military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, defense minister of 20 years under Mubarak's former regime, took over after the 18-day popular uprising forced Mubarak to step down. The military initially pledged to hand back power to a civilian administration in six months, but that deadline has passed, with parliamentary elections now scheduled to start in late November. According to a timetable floated by the generals, presidential elections could be held late next year.

Egypt’s economy is still reeling from the revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from his 30-year presidency, contracting 4.2 percent from January to March as revenue from industries such as tourism plummeted. Gross domestic product grew 1.8 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to government figures, its weakest performance in at least 10 years.

Discrimination Encouraged

Discrimination against Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt, was encouraged by Mubarak’s government, according to a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom published last year.

U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday called for all sides to refrain from violence. “The rights of minorities -- including Copts -- must be respected,” he said.

Some Christians say the discrimination has continued. The protest was spurred by an Oct. 1 attack on a church in Aswan, in southern Egypt, said Samuel Sobhi, 34, who joined friends and relatives of the dead yesterday in the Coptic Hospital in central Cairo. At least 25 people were killed and 329 injured in the violence, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing Health Ministry figures.

Renewed Clashes

In yesterday’s aftermath, men in plainclothes and families of the victims pelted each other with stones and bottles outside the hospital, Sobhi said. Several hundred people also threw rocks at police, the Associated Press reported. Inside, relatives of the dead wailed and banged on the door to the morgue, demanding to be allowed in. Women slapped their faces and men sobbed into their hands. “My father has died,” yelled one black-clad woman. “Oh God, why did you let them do this to us?” cried another.

The military council asked the cabinet to form the fact- finding committee to investigate the events, state-run Nile News reported. About 25 people have been accused of involvement in the violence, including acts of “sabotage” and attacks on soldiers and military property, MENA reported.

In a statement faxed to news organizations, the cabinet said it would review a draft law on the legalization of unauthorized places of worship and may approve a unified law within two weeks.

Anti-Discrimination Policy

Egypt will add a new clause to its punishment law, stipulating a prison sentence and a fine on anyone, including government employees, who practices discrimination of citizens based on gender, origin, language, religion or belief, the statement said. The fine would range from 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,027.82) to 100,000 pounds ($16,759.40), it added.

While the Oct. 9 demonstrations started peacefully, they turned violent when protesters came under attack by men in civilian clothing who pelted them with stones, witnesses including Sobhi said. Demonstrators later clashed with security forces. Some were killed and injured by gunfire, others by the armored driving into the crowd, they said.

“All Egyptians should now unite to reject the rule of the army,” said Michael Gamal, 25, who said his brother died from a gunshot wound during the protests. He didn’t see who shot him, he said.

Protests also broke out in four other provinces, according to Al Arabiya television.

‘Horrified’ Church

The Coptic Church said it was “horrified” by the events, “signaling that outsiders have infiltrated the march and committed crimes that were blamed on Copts,” MENA reported. Christians suffer from repeated incidents where attackers aren’t held accountable and no solutions are reached, the news agency cited the church as saying in a statement.

The church also called on Copts to fast for three days “for peace to prevail in Egypt,” MENA reported.

“This was the worst incident of violence since the revolution. It shows people that the transitional period in Egypt is quite challenging,” Mohamed Abu Basha, an economist at the Cairo-based investment bank EFG-Hermes Holding SAE, said by telephone. “People were already concerned that there’s no stability or a clear timeline for transition. This makes the picture bleaker.”

The cost of protecting Egyptian government debt against default rose to the highest level in almost a week after the clashes. Five-year credit default swaps gained five basis points, or 0.05 percentage point, to 465, according to data provider CMA. That is the highest level on a closing basis since Oct. 5.


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