Egypt’s Christians appear to already be paying a price for the Egyptian military’s decision to dislodge largely peaceful protests in Cairo with a large-scale dispersal operation that quickly became violent. Numbers are in flux but scores have perished as the military moved in this morning to remove thousands of supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at two sites where vast numbers of Egyptians have been staging sit-ins for weeks. The government health ministry reports that
149 (as of Thursday morning 525) people have been killed in the day's violence. But the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed the protests, says at least 2,000 have died.
Many of the protesters who had encamped for weeks in Cairo had brought their children along, apparently confident that the Egyptian military would be incapable of such an aggressive effort to remove Morsi supporters. Parents were recorded rushing from the scene while attempting to protect children from tear gas that engulfed the protest sites. A spokesman for the Salafist Front claimed that at least 65 children were among those killed; some witnesses reported that security set fire to tents were children were sleeping.
Among the dead were at least three Egyptian security officers; Mick Deane, a cameraman working for Sky News; Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, a reporter for Gulf News; and the 17-year-old daughter of leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed el-Beltagy. Asmaa el-Beltagy was shot in the back and chest, her brother told reporters.
Mohamed ElBaradei, in a statement deploring the violence, has resigned as Egypt's interim vice president of foreign affairs. In a letter to Interim President Adly Mansour, ElBaradei said that "the beneficiaries of what happened today are those who call for violence, terrorism and the most extreme groups.
"As you know, I saw that there were peaceful ways to end this clash in society, there were proposed and acceptable solutions for beginnings that would take us to national consensus," he wrote. "It has become difficult for me to continue bearing responsibility for decisions that I do not agree with and whose consequences I fear. I cannot bear the responsibility for one drop of blood."
Attacks on Coptic churches and Christian sites have been reported from around the country, and a state of emergency has been declared in Egypt. Hundreds of Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters have already been arrested. According to press reports, protestors tried to storm police stations across Egypt's capital and entire Cairo neighborhoods descended into street fighting as neighbors on opposite sides of the political divide clashed over the brutal end to the Morsi sit-ins. An evening curfew has been set for 11 provinces, including Cairo. The decision may arouse unpleasant associations for many Egyptians; ousted President Hosni Mubarak reigned over Egypt during a 30-year emergency decree. The measure was taken, according to a statement from the presidency, because the "security and order of the nation face danger due to deliberate sabotage, and attacks on public and private buildings and the loss of life by extremist groups."
An Obama administration spokesperson condemned the bloodshed, saying the violence "runs directly counter to the pledges by the interim government to pursue reconciliation." In a briefing to reporters Wednesday in Massachusetts, where President Obama is vacationing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States has repeatedly called for Egyptian security forces to show restraint. He also repeated calls for the mostly Islamist protesters to "demonstrate peacefully." Earnest said the White House opposes Cairo's imposition of a one-month state of emergency in response to the escalating unrest in the country. He said the violence will only make it more difficult for Egypt to move on path to lasting stability and democracy.
Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Wednesday's crackdown as a "massacre." He urged the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League to act immediately to stop it. Turkish President Abdullah Gul accused the Egyptian government of staging an armed intervention against civilians and called that "unacceptable."
In a nation used to violence and protest in recent weeks, the images emerging from the conflict today still startled. The violence began shortly after dawn on Wednesday morning, when armored bulldozers drove through barricades that had been built by protestors and pushed into the main protest camp outside the eastern Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque. Egyptian officials say the other protest camp, at Nahda Square, had been cleared without resistance.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned in the violence and urged all Egyptians to focus on promoting inclusive reconciliation. The crackdown comes just days after Ban renewed his call for all sides in Egypt to reconsider their actions in light of new political realities and the imperative to prevent further loss of life. "The Secretary-General regrets that Egyptian authorities chose instead to use force to respond to the ongoing demonstrations," his spokesperson said in a statement. Ban extended his condolences to the families of those killed and his wishes for a full and speedy recovery to those injured. "In the aftermath of today's violence, the Secretary-General urges all Egyptians to concentrate their efforts on promoting genuinely inclusive reconciliation," his spokesperson said.
In Cairo supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are battling security forces in the streets, but in other parts of the nation, where the military and security presence is weaker, Brotherhood members and their supporters are reported to have been rampaging against Christian targets in revenge for the bloodshed at the capital. The nation’s Coptic Christians have become a special focus of the fury of Islamists since they are viewed as whole-hearted supporters of the military’s removal of President Morsi in early July.
Christians in Egypt, already in recent weeks the subject of persistent threats and violence, including the murder of a 10-year old girl shot to death while returning home from Bible study, are worried that they will become the targets of the fury of Brotherhood supporters. Egypt’s Coptic Pope Tawadros II has received numerous death threats and has cancelled public meetings because of the threat of Al Qaeda attacks on his congregation. That’s according to Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Church in the United Kingdom, who added that recently Al-Qaeda had raised its flag on the church property, threatening worshippers to hide inside. The homes and businesses of Copts have been destroyed and, according to Bishop Angaelos, there is an open demand on TV shows to eradicate non-Muslims from the country.
The anger against Coptic Christians has been unabated since Morsi was deposed. At that time, Pope Tawadros issued a statement in support of the military and noting: "The roadmap mentioned by the general had been devised by honorable people, who had Egypt's best interests at heart." Some Islamists took this as a sign that the church had conspired in Morsi’s overthrow.
Angry Morsi supporters have staged demonstrations almost nightly in Nile-side Assiut, a city of one million people 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Cairo, since the July 3 coup. During one recent demonstration, according to media reports, 10,000 Islamists marched down the most heavily Christian street in Assiut, chanting "Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians." A half-dozen kids spray-painted "Boycott the Christians" on walls, supervised by an adult.
"Tawadros is a dog" was a spray-painted insult, referring to Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Copts, and Christian homes, stores and places of worship have been marked with large painted crosses.
"They [the Islamists] will not stop as long as they are left to do as they please without fear of accountability," said Hossam Nabil, 38, who owns a jewelry store on Youssry Ragheb Street, where the demonstration passed during the night of August 6. "They are many and one day they will trash our stores." Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. "They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi's name in our faces," he said.
The unchecked hostility to Christians led a coalition of 16 Egyptian rights groups to warn on August 7 of a wave of violence to come and to demand that the post-coup authorities protect the Christians who are 10 percent of the population.
And from the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood there is little evidence of a rethinking of the Islamist resistance to military’s ouster of Morsi and efforts to peacefully transition to new political leadership. In an interview with local media before the crackdown in Cairo, Brotherhood spokesperson, Gehad El Haddad said that the group behind the military coup is composed of “conspirators who will be brought to justice.”
He added that the Brotherhood does not recognize the interim government and will not participate in the transitional phase roadmap. He has previously warned that if the Cairo sit-ins were dispersed by force, the result will be “doubled sit-ins” predicting that “every one gone will spring two more.”