Scores of mostly Coptic Christian protesters were injured when their weekend demonstration blocking a street near the heart of downtown Cairo was attacked by motorists and residents as riot police stood by, prompting new questions about the ability and willingness of Egypt’s military-led government to maintain security.
The attacks came hours after an explosion at the tomb of a Muslim saint in the northern Sinai town of Sheik Zweid and a week after sectarian clashes left 15 dead and 200 injured.
The violence erupted late Saturday on Cairo’s busy corniche road that runs parallel to the Nile, within view of the balconies and terraces of the Marriott, Hilton and other major hotels frequented by foreign tourists.
For days, the protesters camped out on the street to call for government protection after a church was burned, sparking deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba area of the city.
Late Saturday, crowds rushed in, lobbing gasoline bombs and charging at the several hundred demonstrators. The attackers also burned cars and trucks. Nearly 80 people were injured, including two with gunshot wounds, according to witnesses and the national health minister.
The attackers may have been angered when protesters blocked the roadway, said George Thabet, a demonstrator who witnessed the attack.
Thabet said he saw “young thugs in plain clothes” atop the nearby 6th of October bridge throw gasoline bombs at the protesters.
Riot police initially stood by, then left to fetch soldiers, witnesses said. About an hour later, police returned with soldiers, who parked their tanks at either end of the street, on opposite sides of the sit-in.
By 1:30 a.m. Sunday, nearly five hours after violence erupted, security forces said they had regained control of the area, according to state television. At least 44 people, including both attackers and protesters, were eventually arrested in connection with the incident, state television reported
Security forces and military officials declined to comment on the incident or to issue a statement.
Egypt’s military leaders had vowed Friday to crack down on what they described “deviant groups” threatening stability and security. Political analysts said the slow response by security forces this weekend showed their inability and unwillingness to maintain control in the capital months after demonstrations that eventually unseated longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
“The military cannot stop these attacks and there is no political vision to deal with these types of sectarian clashes,” said Emad Gad, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “I’m afraid that we will see many attacks, many clashes, sectarian violence. We could see blood in the Egyptian streets.”
The latest violence so alarmed the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, that he called for an end to the sit-in Sunday, according to a statement read by his spokesman on state television.
The statement warned that outsiders have infiltrated the group of largely Christian protesters, making the situation more explosive.
But protesters, in particular Coptic Christians, said late Sunday that they were determined to stay, and that even more demonstrators had joined them.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo bureau.