Hundreds of Muslims and Copts embarked on a long-lasting and fast-moving national unity march on Friday, seeking to ease the recently-soured sectarian tensions and protest against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been undergone a baptism of fire over the past months.
The march, as planned, kicked off at Al-Azhar Mosque after Friday’s prayers. It lasted over five hours, touring downtown and stopping several times as protesters incessantly chanted “Muslim, and Christian, [are] one hand,” among many other unity slogans.
De-facto president, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, got the lion’s share of the anti-SCAF chants. Not only did demonstrators lash out at him for last week’s deadly confrontations, but they also accused him of perjury, saying his testimony in the trial of deposed president Hosni Mubarak was false.
The most significant stop the march made was at the main Coptic Cathedral in Abasseya neighbourhood, where a huge funeral sermon was held last Monday for the victims of Sunday’s attacks. Copts and their supporters protesting against the SCAF and sectarianism were attacked by military forces, although the latter made a point to deny the accusations in a press conference last week.
Near the end of the march, protesters also went to the state television building, Maspero; the site of the battle that saw at least 25 dead, over 300 injured and millions of Egyptians in shock. At this point protesters slammed the government-run media for its “hypocritical coverage” of the incident.
Although security personnel didn’t obstruct the march, the crowds did cause quite a few traffic stoppages downtown.
From the beginning
The national unity march began with a host of demonstrators congregating outside Al-Azhar mosque chanting against the ruling military council and Tantawi. Another group came out of the blue to initiate a verbal joust with the protesters.
“They are the remnants of the former regime,” an angry man said, pointing at the other group. Others soon started to chant “The people, and the army, [are] one hand,” before the spat gradually developed into a physical engagement.
Suddenly, both sides started to stone each other, prompting a state of disarray for few minutes in front of Al-Azhar Mosque. As the march moved on, others kept repeating pro-army slogans in the area, in what seemed to be a retort to the marchers’ calls for SCAF to hand over power.
Following the brief rock exchange, armed policemen showed up before the mosque. For a while, some of them even escorted the marchers for protection in an unusual scene, seeing as there has been no love lost between the revolutionaries and the police since the January 25 Revolution. No injuries were reported.
Eventually, 200 people grouped to begin the march. Before reaching its first destination (Abbassiya Cathedral) a second column of protesters marching from Tahrir Square converged with the Al-Azhar column. More demonstrators were waiting at the Cathedral, as well.
At the Cathedral, Muslim protesters prayed in front of the Christian house of worship and then some eyewitnesses to Sunday’s attacks gave their accounts.
“The march was peaceful, and I saw a military militia attacking the demonstrators [who were primarily protesting against religious discrimination],” said one of them, to substantiate the notion that it was the army who initiated the turmoil.
After around half an hour, the marchers started heading to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular uprising. However, they changed their route to nearby Maspero to demonstrate in front of the state radio and television building.
When they arrived at the Maspero building, protesters expressed fury at governmental-owned media. They pointed at the state radio and television building repeating “These are the liars,” referring to the local TV reports on Sunday’s tragedy, which many believe were far from credible.
State media claimed Sunday that Coptic protesters were carrying firearms and other weapons while marching and then attacked the army - an allegation that was emphatically denied by many eyewitnesses and independent newspaper reports.
Last month, Egypt’s minority Coptic population were left fuming after a group of Muslims in Al-Marinab village, Aswan, attempted to block renovations underway at a Christian church in the majority Muslim village. Muslims tore down parts of the church, burned the library, which caught nearby Coptic homes on fire. They reduced the building’s importance by calling it simply a “guesthouse” and accused the local Copts of trying to turn it into a church.
Several demonstrations demanding the assailants be punished were staged later in Cairo and Aswan. However, Christians and protesters got no decisive response from authorities.
Now, all the attention seemed to have switched to Sunday’s tragic incident, which saw Christian protesters getting run over and gunned downed. According to several eyewitnesses, army troops were responsible for the brutal deaths.
SCAF stated that its forces would never kill Egyptians - a statement that did little to reduce the fierce criticism the ruling military has been subject to.