Sectarian clashes killed at least 13 people in Cairo on Wednesday, as old regime diehards attacked pro-democracy protesters in the biggest challenge yet to Egypt’s new military rulers.
Bloody fighting broke out late on Tuesday in the working class Cairo district of Moqattam when Muslims confronted 1 000 Christians who had been blocking a main road in protest at the burning of a church last week.
“Thirteen people were killed in the clashes,” the health ministry said.
Father Boutros Roshdy of the Moqattam church told Agence France-Presse at least seven Coptic Christians were among the dead.
Meanwhile, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of anti-regime protests that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak, attackers armed with knives and machetes waded into hundreds of pro-democracy activists, witnesses said.
By early evening, the army had restored order in the square, dismantling tents pitched by protesters shortly after anti-regime riots erupted on January 25, the official Mena news agency reported.
A few protesters scuffled with the army, but were swiftly detained “in a bid to control the situation,” Mena said.
‘Pro-Mubarak thugs attacked us’
The violence, widely blamed on remnants of Mubarak’s regime, revealed the security vacuum created by police, who disappeared from the streets during January protests that led to Mubarak’s resignation.
Stone-throwing skirmishes had been raging, and activists were gathering sticks and stockpiling rocks to defend themselves.
“The pro-Mubarak thugs attacked us and tried to come into Tahrir, but we were able to push them back, with sticks and stones. We fear they will return,” a young militant, Mouez Mohammed, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The clashes took place as the newly appointed cabinet met with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to propose a law criminalising incitement to hatred, which could lead to the death penalty, state TV said.
In Moqattam, Christians said they were angry at the army.
“Has [the army] sold us to the Muslim Brotherhood? If that’s the case it must understand that Copts won’t leave this country,” said Saleh Ibrahim, a Christian carpenter from the run-down district.
“We expected the army to defend us but now we know they are against us, like the police. This country will not be an Islamist state,” he told AFP.
‘Everyone stand together’
But the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement, blamed diehards of the Mubarak regime of inciting the violence.
It called on “everyone to stand together to support our armed forces and the Cabinet so that they can fulfill the demands of the revolution.”
Egypt’s military rulers have been battling to steer the country through a fragile transition since Mubarak was overthrown on February 11, promising to pave the way for a free democratic society.
On Monday, the military council vowed to have the Sol church rebuilt and to prosecute those behind the arson attack.
Coptic priest Samann Ibrahim told AFP earlier on Wednesday that six people were killed in the clashes.
“We have at the clinic the bodies of six Copts, all of them shot,” Ibrahim said about a medical centre attached to his church, where another 45 people were also treated, “all of them, without exception, hit by gunshots.”
Some people among the crowd of Muslims opened fire on the demonstrators, he said, adding the mob had also petrol-bombed houses and workplaces.
Several plastic recycling shops and warehouses storing cardboard boxes had been torched.
Tuesday’s fighting broke out when dozens of Muslims showed up in Moqattam, inhabited by Copts who work as garbage collectors and who had blocked a main north-south artery in the capital.
People threw rocks from both sides and witnesses said soldiers at the scene fired shots into the air in a bid to disperse the crowds.
Before the Moqattam violence, Copts had protested for several days outside the radio and television building in central Cairo demanding the torched church be rebuilt, and that those responsible be brought to justice.
The Shahedain (Two Martyrs) church, in the Helwan provincial town of Sol, was set ablaze on Friday after clashes between Copts and Muslims that left two people dead.
The violence was triggered by a feud between two families, which disapproved of a romantic relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman.
“Problems escalated in the village when a group of Muslims headed to the burned-out church and conducted a mass Islamic prayer there,” Maged Ibrahim, a Christian resident, told Egyptian state television.
Christians, who make up about 10% of Egypt’s 80-million population, complain of systematic discrimination and have been the target of several sectarian attacks. — AFP