Egypt on Alert After Deadly Clashes Between Copts, Military

Coptic Christians, Egyptian Security Forces Clash in Cairo
Egyptian Coptic Christians clash with soldiers and anti-riot police during a protest against the attack on a church, in southern Egypt, in Cairo. Photographer: Owaise Mahmoud/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian authorities ordered a fact-finding committee to investigate clashes between Coptic Christian protesters and security forces that left at least 25 dead.

The violence began Oct. 9 when several hundred Egyptian Christians, protesting a recent attack on a church, came under assault by people in plainclothes and were then confronted by security forces, witnesses said. The army later imposed a curfew until 7 a.m. yesterday in the center of Cairo, the capital.

“This was not violence between Christians and the army, nor was it violence between Christians and Muslims; there were thugs involved,” said Father Youssef Samir, a Coptic priest. Police in riot gear directed traffic yesterday along the Nile River, where a burned-out car and smashed glass remained from the violence. Funerals for many of the victims were held.

Egyptian shares dropped to the lowest level in more than two years. The benchmark EGX 30 Index slumped 2.3 percent to 3,938.02 in Cairo, the lowest close since March 2009. Orascom Construction Industries, the country’s biggest publicly traded builder, lost 3 percent to 200.11 Egyptian pounds. Citadel Capital SAE fell 3.2 percent, the lowest level since the company listed its shares in December 2009.

Egypt’s economy is still reeling from the revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from his 30-year presidency, contracting 4.2 percent from January to March as revenue from industries such as tourism plummeted. Gross domestic product grew 1.8 percent in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to government figures, its weakest performance in at least 10 years.

Discrimination Encouraged

Discrimination against Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt, was encouraged by Mubarak’s government, according to a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom published last year.

U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday called for all sides to refrain from violence. “The rights of minorities -- including Copts -- must be respected,” he said.

Some Christians say the discrimination has continued. The protest was spurred by an Oct. 1 attack on a church in Aswan, in southern Egypt, said Samuel Sobhi, 34, who joined friends and relatives of the dead yesterday in the Coptic Hospital in central Cairo. At least 25 people were killed and 329 injured in the violence, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing Health Ministry figures.

Renewed Clashes

In yesterday’s aftermath, men in plainclothes and families of the victims pelted each other with stones and bottles outside the hospital, Sobhi said. Several hundred people also threw rocks at police, the Associated Press reported. Inside, relatives of the dead wailed and banged on the door to the morgue, demanding to be allowed in. Women slapped their faces and men sobbed into their hands. “My father has died,” yelled one black-clad woman. “Oh God, why did you let them do this to us?” cried another.

The military council asked the cabinet to form a fact-finding committee to investigate the events, state-run Nile News reported. About 25 people have been accused of involvement in the violence, including acts of “sabotage” and attacks on soldiers and military property, MENA reported.

In a statement faxed to news organizations, the cabinet said it would review a draft law on the legalization of unauthorized places of worship and may approve a unified law within two weeks.

Anti-Discrimination Policy

Egypt will add a new clause to its punishment law, stipulating a prison sentence and a fine on anyone, including government employees, who practices discrimination of citizens based on gender, origin, language, religion or belief, the statement said. The fine would range from 30,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,027.82) to 100,000 pounds ($16,759.40), it added.

While the Oct. 9 demonstrations started peacefully, they turned violent when protesters came under attack by men in civilian clothing who pelted them with stones, witnesses including Sobhi said. Demonstrators later clashed with security forces. Some were killed and injured by gunfire, others by the armored driving into the crowd, they said.

“All Egyptians should now unite to reject the rule of the army,” said Michael Gamal, 25, who said his brother died from a gunshot wound during the protests. He didn’t see who shot him, he said.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said in a televised speech that the clashes were “unjustified violence” that “raised fear and concerns about the future of this homeland” and the country’s transition to democracy.

Protests also broke out in four other provinces, according to Al Arabiya television.

‘Horrified’ Church

The Coptic Church said it was “horrified” by the events, “signaling that outsiders have infiltrated the march and committed crimes that were blamed on Copts,” MENA reported. Christians suffer from repeated incidents where attackers aren’t held accountable and no solutions are reached, the news agency cited the church as saying in a statement.

The church also called on Copts to fast for three days “for peace to prevail in Egypt,” MENA reported.

“This was the worst incident of violence since the revolution. It shows people that the transitional period in Egypt is quite challenging,” Mohamed Abu Basha, an economist at the Cairo-based investment bank EFG-Hermes Holding SAE, said by telephone. “People were already concerned that there’s no stability or a clear timeline for transition. This makes the picture bleaker.”

The cost of protecting Egyptian government debt against default rose to the highest level in almost a week after the clashes. Five-year credit default swaps gained five basis points, or 0.05 percentage point, to 465, according to data provider CMA. That is the highest level on a closing basis since Oct. 5.

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