Egypt army and police massacre protesters in Cairo — updated

The New York Times reports: A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests here against the military council now ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.

When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.

Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.

“Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”

Issandr El Amrani sees the turn of events as worrisome for multiple reasons.

This marks the first time that the army has taken such an aggressive posture against a predominantly Christian protest, which will easily lead the framing of today’s events as the first time that the military chooses to kill protesting Christians.

Worrisome because state television has behaved thus far tonight much as it did during the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising this winter. In other words, it has deployed propaganda, unverifiable allegations, talk of “foreign agendas” and “outside hands”, and extremely partial reporting. It has repeatedly used sectarian language, with presenters referring to protestors as “the Copts” and using sentences such as “The Copts have killed two soldiers.” On top of this, the military cut off the live TV feeds of several satellite TV stations, including 25TV, al-Hurra, and at a later point al-Jazeera, reducing the independent reporting of an unfolding event. And most of all because TV presenters were urging Egyptians to “protect the army from the Copts.”

Worrisome because many appear to have responded to that call, and tonight on one of Cairo’s main thoroughfares you could see young men marching to that chant of “There is no God but God”, or a woman being attacked simply because she was wearing a cross, or simply because sectarianism has reared its ugly head again after last May’s Imbaba church arson.

Worrisome because this is all happening at a time when the political class is in crisis, its confidence in the SCAF at an all-time low, and the general population is so fed up of all the uncertainty and chaos that it is having buyer’s remorse about the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

Most worrisome of all because, taken altogether, this paints a picture of the Egyptian military as resorting to sectarian impulses almost reflexively. It is the flipside of its continued unwillingness, after the sectarian clashes (between civilians as well as between police, military and civilians once fighting had already broken out) of earlier this year, to end once and for all the official discrimination that Copts face when building, expanding or renovating places of worship. SCAF, which rules by decree, could have acted, but did not — and acted weakly in the face of the arson of a church in Aswan last week, which was the cause of today’s protests. And because from so many sides we are getting the old passing of the buck to “foreign agendas” and “foreign hands” in what was.

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