The dead were buried on Monday, more than two dozen Christian Egyptian protesters mowed down by their own military, an army that had won praise back in February for refusing to turn its weapons against demonstrators. After Sunday night’s violence, which left 24 dead and more than 270 wounded according to the Egyptian Health Ministry, the Arab Spring seems a long time ago. A military council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi is now in charge of Egypt, and it is resurrecting many of the tactics of deposed President Hosni Mubarak to instill fear and keep the citizenry in line, like using State TV to spread sectarian suspicion and conspiratorial talk of “foreign hands” sowing internal discord.
Sunday’s march in Cairo by Coptic Christians (with a fair smattering of sympathetic Muslim participation as well) started out as a peaceful protest against the recent burning of a church by ultraconservative Muslims, and the perceived lackadaisical response by the ruling military junta to a spate of anti-Christian attacks since Mubarak’s ouster. Events rapidly devolved into chaos, with live ammunition fired, clouds of tear gas released and protesters crushed and killed by military vehicles that reportedly rammed right into them. Some protesters responded with rock-throwing. (See “Church Attack Riots in Cairo Turn Deadly.”)
State TV had another narrative; a violent mob of Christians sparked the melee by attacking the military, killing several soldiers. Breathless anchors urged “honorable” citizens to head down along the Nile to the national media building at Maspero to help soldiers defend themselves and public property. The clashes reignited on Monday, with Christians pelting security forces with rocks outside the Cairo hospital where the bodies of victims were taken the previous night. The Coptic church on Monday disputed State TV’s claims, saying there was no evidence that Christian protesters shot at soldiers. Church officials called for a three-day fast to protest the events.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Essam el-Erian condemned the violence, telling TIME that this was a critical period for the country, a “time for solidarity, to implement a state of law, and to make reconciliation between all sections of society.”
Egypt’s Christians, who comprise about 10% of the country’s 80 million or so people, have watched warily as Salafists and other ultraconservative Muslims, long kept underfoot by Mubarak, have begun exercising their political rights—and influence—in the wake of the February revolution. At eight million or so, Egypt’s Copts are easily one of the biggest Christian communities in the Middle East, but unlike Lebanon’s much smaller Christian population for example, they lack political muscle. (Lebanon is the only country in the Middle East with a Christian head of state mandated by political consensus.) (See TIME’s Exclusive Photos: Turmoil in Egypt)
It’s a trying period for the Middle East’s dwindling Christian communities as secular pan-Arab, anti-Islamist regimes fall by the wayside and political vacuums form in their place. The precedent of Iraq looms large. There were some 800,000 Christians in the country before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein. Since then, hundreds of thousands have fled the war-ravaged state. In majority Sunni Syria, the minority Christians have largely sided with Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in public, fearful of what may follow it, although many prominent Christians are also part of the opposition.”This is a dangerous period, one that will determine in which direction the country is going,” says Emad Gad, a Copt, and leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic party. “Are we taking the first steps toward creating a real state or are we going toward sectarian conflict and war?”
Sunday’s violence in Cairo has broader significance, beyond the country’s religious divisions. This is a wider conflict, between Egyptians of all religions turning against a military regime that just eight months ago was hailed for ensuring a peaceful transfer of power after Mubarak was forced from office. The fruits of Egypt’s revolution have yet to be savored by millions who hoped a quick revolution would mean even quicker economic, social and political benefits. The economy has slumped, and the generals—who initially pledged to hand back power to a civilian administration in six months—seem increasingly comfortable at the helm. Their recently announced electoral timetable would keep them in charge until presidential elections in 2013, much to the ire of many. “I don’t think we’ll have elections at all,” Gad said, echoing a sentiment relayed on Twitter and other social media. “I think that the army let the violence happen so that it could cancel the elections and remain in power.”
The Brotherhood’s Erian warned against any delay to the elections. “We cannot move forward without elections,” he told TIME. “We can overcome all of these trials with solidarity and national consensus … The people are waiting for elections and to have a new system.”
As the exuberance of Arab Spring becomes a faraway memory in the Middle East, a counter-revolution is gaining ground, exploiting the sectarianism that power-brokers in the region have long used to keep their populations at bay. Will Egyptians and other Arabs see through it? Or will they be sucked into its vortex? What happens next on Cairo’s streets will be critical.