Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi sought to contain growing sectarian turmoil as the death toll from days of Muslim-Christian clashes climbed to eight and the opposition seized on it as another example of his failures.
The worst sectarian violence in months has added to the chaos that has convulsed Egypt since Mursi’s election in June. The president is under assault from an array of critics frustrated by political instability and a stalled economy.
Clashes rekindled overnight in Khosous, the town outside Cairo where the fighting began over the weekend, killing one person and injuring 14, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported today, citing Health Ministry official Khaled el-Khateeb. Two others died and 89 were injured in fighting yesterday outside a Coptic cathedral in Cairo, where services had been held for four Christians killed in the weekend violence, el-Khateeb said, updating earlier reports of one dead.
Mursi reached out to Coptic Pope Tawadros II in an evening phone call yesterday, telling him “I consider any aggression against the cathedral as aggression against me,” the Islamist leader’s office said in a statement on its Facebook page. The pope said on Twitter that the church “pays its condolences to the families of those martyred, and awaits the outcome of security investigations.”
Egypt’s Copts, long disadvantaged under Mursi’s ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak, have voiced concerns about the Islamists’ growing power. At yesterday’s services, many called for Mursi to quit and denounced him as a “puppet president” of the Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded him for office.
The violence is the latest in a series of “desperate attempts to subvert our national unity,” the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, said on the group’s website. “They will not succeed, God willing.”
Mursi and the Brotherhood have frequently blamed violent episodes on unidentified people they say are seeking to destabilize Egypt.
The recurring unrest has undermined Mursi’s efforts to revive an economy damaged by the flight of investors and tourists after the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. Rising inflation, triggered by a slump in the currency, shortages of fuel and other goods and growing poverty and unemployment have stoked protests against him. Mursi is also embroiled in a dispute with the judiciary and trying to end a train strike.
A leading opposition group that’s part of the broader National Salvation Front bloc blamed Mursi and his government for failing to provide security.
“Security forces interfere violently where politics is needed, while these forces are always absent when people are looking for security,” the Popular Current, headed by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, said in a statement.
Reports about what triggered the sectarian fighting were contradictory. According to one account by local police, Christian boys were caught defacing the outside wall of a mosque.
Fighting in Khosous resumed overnight with two houses set ablaze, the state-run Ahram Gate reported. Bishop Suriel Yonan, the pastor of Saint George Church in Khosous, appealed for calm as a group of agitated youths chanted, “With our souls, our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, o crucifix.”
“I’m urging you to go home and give the government and the police a chance to work,” he told them, according to footage on Al Jazeera. “I trust their ability to arrest those terrorists and criminals.”
Mourners leaving the Cairo service yesterday were pelted with rocks and bottles, police Major Mohamed Hassan said by phone.
Some worshipers retreated back inside the church, Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher who monitors religious freedom at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said by phone. “Security forces have been very unresponsive,” he said.
Mursi ordered a probe into the latest incidents. The U.S. Embassy in Egypt condemned the violence while welcoming Mursi’s pledge to investigate it.
The president has repeatedly said he will ensure that Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, are afforded equal opportunities. Critics say those pledges haven’t translated into action, pointing to Mursi’s focus on pushing through an Islamist-backed constitution that many Christian and secular groups opposed.
The president’s approval rating has dropped to 47 percent after nine months in office, from 78 percent after his first 100 days, according to a Baseera opinion poll conducted in March.