Egypt sectarian strife kills 13, challenge to army

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 - 21:49

Cairo: Thirteen Egyptians were killed in violence between Christians and Muslims as sectarian tensions resurfaced in Cairo and a new government met for the first time Wednesday, discussing how to restore law and order.

The Health Ministry said the 13 people were killed and 140 wounded in violence Tuesday night ignited by tensions built up since an arson attack on a church south of Cairo Saturday.

The strife poses another challenge to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as it charts Egypt`s course toward elections that will return power to a civilian, elected government within six months.

The revolution that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11 was characterized by Christian-Muslim solidarity. Egyptians hoped the uprising had buried tensions that have flared up with increasing regularity in recent years.

It was not clear how many of the dead were Christian or Muslim. The trouble had started on a Cairo highway where Christians had been protesting over the arson attack on the church south of the capital in Helwan.

The protests spread elsewhere in the capital and hundreds of people faced off in the violence, hurling petrol bombs and rocks, witnesses said.

The injuries included head wounds, bruises, bullet wounds and broken limbs, the state news agency quoted a senior health ministry official as saying. At least one of the dead, an 18-year-old Christian, had been shot in the back.

It was not clear who had opened fire. The military, trying to restore order, had opened fire in the air at one point.

"All of us must pay heed to this," said Amr Hamzawy, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center and a member of the reform movement.

"The supreme military council, the government and civil society must react because we do not want this to escalate and I fear we may return to the dark tunnel of sectarian tension."

The attack on the church was triggered by a family dispute over a romance between a Muslim woman and a Christian man. Similar stories have triggered strife in the past.

Hundreds of Christians have been protesting outside the Cairo headquarters of state television since the attack.

Seeking to contain tensions, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has said the military would rebuild the church before Easter.

The Coptic Church, which represents the minority Christian population, issued no comment on the violence and a church official declined to comment. In the past, the church has typically urged calm after such violence.

"The system now does not have the strength or the authority or even the military power to separate Muslims and Christians, if, God forbid, there are further implications," political analyst Diaa Rashwan said. "The system does not even have the power to ease traffic," he added.

The police force, which largely disintegrated at the start of the uprising against Mubarak, has yet to fully redeploy, increasing the burden on the military which has been on the streets since the revolution erupted in late January.

Tantawi met with the new government which Wednesday met for the first time since taking office. Led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, the new cabinet`s priorities include restoring law and order.

The cabinet adjourned its meeting for an emergency session with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces by noon, a cabinet source said, without providing further details.

General Masnour el-Essawy, the new interior minister, has said his main priority is to redeploy police forces across the country and is now studying a plan to restructure the security apparatus to give it credibility.

The military council has scheduled a referendum on constitutional reform for March 19. The amendments will open the way to elections for the presidency and parliament, after which the military says it will hand power to a civilian government.

Bureau Report



First Published: Wednesday, March 9, 2011 - 21:49

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