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Clashes Grow As Egyptians Remain Angry After An Attack


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
CAIRO — Thousands of angry rioters broke through police lines, pelting officers with rocks and bottles and beating them with makeshift wooden crosses in a third day of unrest set off by a bomb blast outside a church after a New Year’s Mass, which killed 21 and wounded about 100.

The fighting broke out late Monday in the densely packed neighborhood of Shoubra, home to many of Cairo’s Christians, when a crowd of hundreds of angry protesters suddenly swelled into the thousands and surged through the winding streets. Eventually, the throng — chanting “Where were you when they attacked Alex?” and “Oh Mubarak, you villain, Coptic blood is not cheap,” referring to President Hosni Mubarak — began battling with the police, who dropped their batons and shields to throw rocks and bottles back at the protesters.

It was the second time in two nights that the police in Cairo, outnumbered and overwhelmed by protesters, broke ranks and attacked the crowd. Even before the outbreak on Monday night, at least 39 riot police officers, including four high-ranking officers, had been injured trying to contain the protests.

Egyptian authorities seemed uncertain at every level of how to contain the civil unrest unleashed by the bombing, outside Saints Church in Alexandria. They focused on the forensics, identifying 18 of the victims — 10 women and 8 men — and were examining a decapitated head thought to be that of a suicide bomber. The authorities also said they had detained suspects they believed could lead them to those responsible for the bombing.

By nightfall, church officials announced that every church in the country — including Saints Church — would go ahead and hold a Coptic Christmas Mass on Thursday night, but that holiday celebrations would be canceled, according to an official Egyptian news service.

Outside of Shoubra, the nation remained tense, with fears that the conflict could lead to wider civil unrest between Muslims and Christians. Rumors spread throughout Cairo that Christians pelted Muslim religious leaders with rocks when they went to offer condolences to church officials. With tempers heating up, police forces tightened security around the country.

But many Egyptians said that the state’s oppressive security apparatus was itself the cause of much of the trouble. “The government is the reason this happened,” said a demonstrator, Mamdouh Mikheil. “They are the terrorists who attack us every day.”

At one point earlier in the day, as a small group of protesters marched through the center of Cairo, a high-ranking state security officer walked over to a row of demonstrators standing vigil and slowly, methodically blew out the white candles they were holding to remember those who died.

It was a small yet telling moment for a Christian community that feels increasingly victimized and marginalized, first by a series of deadly attacks and then by a government that resists acknowledging that the nation is torn by growing conflict between its Muslim majority and its Christian minority, according to political experts here.

“Do not say that the criminal terrorists are not Egyptian,” wrote Samir Farid, in the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, echoing a theme emphasized across nearly every daily newspaper on Monday. “They are Egyptian Muslims who are putting the nation on one hand and Islam on the other, and favoring the hand of Islam over the nation.”

It was not all dire, however. There was a glimmer of hope, some observers said, that this attack, so lethal and abhorrent to so many Egyptians, would reinforce Egypt’s deeply felt sense of nationhood, which has traditionally trumped identification by tribe or religion.

As protesters marched through downtown Cairo toward Talat Harb Square, where they were vastly outnumbered by riot police officers in black uniforms wielding truncheons, they chanted “Down with Mubarak” and “Down with the military state.” But they also carried signs with slogans like, “Egyptians are one people” and “Citizenship is the way out from the slide into sectarianism.”

This attack has so shaken the nation that for the first time in recent memory, there has been a torrent of support for the Christian community within the national news media — and a direct challenge to the government’s narrative, which tends to overlook the tense backdrop of interfaith relations.

“They want there to be no more Copts in Egypt, but it’s not going to happen,” said one of the demonstrators, Lotfy Fahmi, referring to Muslim militants. “This is our country, and we want our rights.”

“Stop playing with words, stop fooling us, stop lying,” wrote Belal Fadl in Al Masry Al Youm. “How many victims are necessary in order for you to take responsibility and realize that we are before a matter of life or death for this country? Do not lie to yourselves and to us with your big words. The Alexandria massacre was targeted at Egyptian Christians.”

The bomb blast recalled a similar, if less deadly attack last year in Nag Hammadi. In that episode, a gunman opened fire on congregants as they filed into the streets after a Coptic Christmas Mass, killing several people. The security services insisted that the shooting was a revenge attack and not the result of sectarian strife, though they noted that it was revenge tied to accusations that a Christian man raped a Muslim girl.

This time the government has said it appears the attack was at least inspired by Al Qaeda, and the government claims that there is evidence of a foreign element in the planning. That is a claim, however, that disappoints many here, who see it as a way for the government to evade the issue of growing sectarian divisions. Mr. Mubarak’s unusually rapid response to the shooting, with a televised national address, did little to calm that grievance, people here said.

“So far Mubarak’s televised speech seems to have been retrieved from a database in the ’90s where this is portrayed as an individual criminal act, without offering any context,” said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The message the Coptic community has been trying to send very loudly over the past few days is that they are angry as much about the attacks on New Year’s Day as about the injustices they have been subjected to.”

Liam Stack reported from Cairo, and Michael Slackman from Berlin. Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.



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