What began as a peaceful march by Coptic activists to protest perceived religious persecution ended violently on Sunday night after demonstrators clashed with army personnel in front of the State Radio and Television Maspero building in downtown Cairo.
Since Egypt’s January revolution, Maspero has become a popular venue for protests and sit-ins by Coptic activists.
Until now, however, it remains unclear what initially triggered the confrontation, which lasted for several hours.
Some protesters claim that army forces initiated the violence by attacking them for no reason. They point to video footage taken at the scene showing armed personnel carriers driving haphazardly into crowds of protesters.
Others present at the scene, however, say that soldiers were simply defending themselves after having been fired on by armed Christian protesters, prompting the deadliest fire-fight since the revolution.
“I don’t know where some of these Christians are getting these firearms,” said Gamal Asa'ad, a Christian activist and former member of Egypt’s upper house of parliament. “They might be associated with radical Copts who want a separate, Christian state.”
“Such an incident leaves the Coptic community in an unenviable position,” he added. “There have been attempts by some quarters to spoil Coptic Christians’ relationship with the Muslim majority and the army.”
National security expert Sameh Seif El-Yazl, for his part, said the clashes were instigated by armed members of two popular protest movements that had participated in yesterday’s march.
“[Kefaya General Coordinator] George Ishaq led the march from Shubra, along with armed members of both groups,” said Seif El-Yazl, in a veiled reference to the April 6 and Kefaya protest movements.
Ishaq, however, denied having taken part in the march, which he described as “peaceful.” He also refuted allegations that “foreign elements” were working behind the scenes to stir up sectarian violence and public animosity towards the army.
The April 6 Youth Movement, along with certain political groups to have emerged since the revolution, have been frequently accused of receiving foreign funding and working for foreign agendas.
“Such allegations are baseless,” Isahak asserted. “The real problem is that the government is weak and can’t properly deal with the Coptic issue.”
Ishaq also condemned attacks on military personnel. “The army is a red line; people mustn’t attack it under any circumstances,” he said.
Three soldiers were reportedly among the slain in last night’s clashes.
In a statement, the April 6 movement blamed Sunday’s mayhem on “unknown armed groups.”
“We were surprised to see unidentified marchers and groups acting in an aggressive manner. We saw them burn [cars] and use batons and firearms,” the statement read. “No one knows whether they were motivated by anger or if it had been planned. In any case, what they did completely contradicts the principles of the revolution.”
The statement went on to call on Egypt’s various post-revolutionary political forces to “exercise restraint and avoid escalation.”
Prominent Muslim preacher Amr Khaled, meanwhile, warned the public against trading in false – and potentially damaging – rumours. “We must be careful; we must think before reacting or circulating rumours that could eventually result in violence,” he said.
Would-be presidential candidates were also quick to issue statements on last night’s events.
“We must beware of sectarian division, which has the potential to set the whole country on fire and return us to square one,” said former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abd El-Monem Abou El-Fotouh.
Islamist thinker Mohamed Selim El-Awa, for his part, blamed the havoc on hired thugs. “It was an attempt to stop the advance of Egyptian democracy,” he said.
El-Awa went on to criticise the army’s reaction to the situation. “Military vehicles should not chase down protesters, even if the latter provoke army officers with gunfire,” he added.
“Muslim and Christian clerics must contain the situation and calm down their followers,” El-Awa said, claiming to possess video footage “proving that Copts weren’t really armed.”
Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, meanwhile, said that potential presidential contenders and major political forces would hold an urgent meeting on Monday to discuss the crisis.
Prominent opposition figure Hamdeen Sabahi, for his part, offered condolences to the families of those killed, blaming the incident on remnants of the former regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
“I ask all Egyptians to protect their nation from the fire of sectarianism,” he said. “This isn’t a sectarian conflict, but a struggle between a revolution that wants to continue on its path and the ousted regime.”
According to Islamist Sheikh Hazem Abou Ismail, another potential presidential candidate, the incident had been “planned for certain purposes.” Longstanding Coptic grievances, he said, “will only be resolved when there is no religious discrimination.”