Egyptian authorities have embarked on a damage control exercise after bloody communally tainted clashes, which began on Sunday evening between Coptic Christian protesters and the security forces raised serious questions about the ruling military's commitment to a democratic transition and protection of minority rights.
On Monday, Egypt's general prosecution started questioning 15 suspects involved in Sunday night's violence. By evening, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a body comprising Egypt's de facto rulers, said unidentified culprits had instigated the clashes and “turned a peaceful march violent”. Egypt's Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb also sought to defuse the crisis by calling on Monday a meeting of Muslim and Christian clergymen.
The death toll following the high intensity violence in Cairo had risen to 25 by mid-afternoon on Monday. Over 200 people have been injured after peaceful protesters were first attacked by the security forces and later by vigilante groups, leading to street battles in downtown Cairo which flared late into the night.
Coptic Christians, comprising 10 per cent of Egypt's population, began their Sunday evening protest by demanding protection of their religious rights, outside the Maspero building, the headquarters of Egyptian State television. This building is a few km away from Tahrir square, the icon of Egypt's pro-democracy uprising.
These protests were the result of an earlier assault on a church in Aswan, a city on the upper Nile. The exact trigger of Sunday's violence is so far not known, but clashes erupted soon after another group of Coptic Christians joined the assemblage outside Maspero, swelling up the crowds there greatly. Violence turned into utter chaos when a military vehicle left the road and ploughed into a sidewalk full of protesters, causing significant number of casualties.
Separately, outside Tahrir Square, another protest was broken up by State security forces, which, backed by the Army, established firm control over the area, eyewitnesses said.
Under a cloud of teargas, they blocked the advance of protesters, which in the midst of clashes outside the state television building were breaking into smaller groups and heading in the direction of Tahrir Square.
The raging street battles that continued to gather momentum as the evening progressed began to acquire distinct communal overtones when vigilante groups, shouting religious Islamic slogans, mingled with the police to break up the protests.