The worst violence Cairo has seen since Hosni Mubarak's brutal attempts to suppress the Egyptian protests in February has claimed at least 24 lives. Military trucks and armoured cars are alleged to have run over peaceful demonstrators, mainly Coptic Christians. Along with Egyptian Muslims, they had marched peacefully from the city's Shubra district to the state television offices in Maspero Square, where they began an outdoor sit-in to protest over the destruction of a church in the southern governorate of Aswan the previous week. The protesters also allege that thugs started targeting Christians before the army joined in; al-Jazeera has carried reports that 300 were injured in all. Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, in a response that is typical of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has blamed foreign interference. But the civilian cabinet has held an emergency meeting, and the Council has called for a speedy inquiry into the incident.

The episode highlights continuing problems in Egypt's transition to democracy. The military rulers have been unable or unwilling to control sectarian prejudices in official institutions. Ordinary Egyptians of all faiths are troubled by the slow progress towards the drafting of a constitution. The Supreme Council may be trying to delay or even prevent reform; since Mr. Mubarak's departure from office, some 12,000 people have been tried in military courts, not the civilian judicial system. A further result of the institutional resistance to change is that the Copts, who at 10 per cent are Egypt's largest single minority, continue to be exposed to discrimination and, on occasion, violence. Those involved in the recent Cairo demonstrations have called for the removal of the Aswan provincial governor, accusing him of failing to protect the church that was attacked. The current situation must be a bitter disappointment to all reform-minded Egyptians, not least those Copts and Muslims who, during February's uprising, prayed together in Cairo's Tahrir Square and chanted “We are one!” in a clear and inspiring message to the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship and to sectarian forces in Egypt. Some religious leaders, such as the country's Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb, have condemned the attack on the Aswan church, but the Tantawi regime now faces a severe test of its sincerity and political will. If it fails to rise to the challenge of genuine democratic reform, it will risk a fresh national uprising.

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