By Joseph Mayton


Cairo, Egypt

The crackle of gunshots rang through the air, followed quickly by a mad dash of people, young and old, moving from Egypt's state television and radio building on Sunday early evening. Turning the corner, directly in front of the five-star Ramses Hilton Hotel, a bloodied man was being carried by two people.

A peaceful march of Coptic Christians was met late on Sunday with bullets and beatings. At least 24 people were killed and over 200 others wounded after the military opened fire on protesters. The blood-stained sidewalk in front of the American hotel chain's shopping mall revealed the extent of the carnage.

The events have sent shock waves throughout Egypt and its society, with many expressing fear that the violence could escalate into a civil war. Even by the standards of the chaos that has overtaken Egypt since the fall of President Husni Mubarak last February, Sunday's violence was severe. Worse still, it was the government itself that fomented it.

"Think of the countries where the rulers kill citizens, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain -- and now Egypt," said a protester as he carried a woman out of the war zone of downtown, his head dripping with blood from wounds received.

Eight months after protestors toppled Mubarak, Egypt is still gripped by violence as its interim military rulers tussle with the opposition leaders and Muslim leaders over the country's path to democracy. Many in the opposition have grown suspicious about the intentions of the generals as they crack down on the freedoms that emerged with Mubarak's fall and the timetable to democratic rule gets pushed back.

"We got rid of Mubarak and now we must get rid of the murderers that are the military," said another protestor, clutching his arm across a bloodied white shirt. Fearing arrest, he would only identify himself as Amr and refused to be taken to a hospital.

The protest by Christian Copts, demanding the governor of Aswan be sacked after a church was burned in his jurisdiction last week, began peacefully as a march from the Shubra district of northern Cairo to the state television building at Maspero Square. But it was met by a phalanx of troops who fired live ammunition and teargas.

A few rocks and Molotov cocktails were thrown back, but for most of Sunday evening, the unarmed demonstrators acted with restraint even as the military advanced and encircled them. A military vehicle ran over protesters, injuring dozens. Protesters attacked and ransacked the vehicle, seizing the driver and dragging him into a side street.

"We've had enough of this. No more killing and dividing a nation over religious lines," said Farid, a Coptic man who told The Media Line that when protesters arrived at the state television building, the military "was already there, guns held up. They wanted a fight and they opened fire on us."

But on Egyptian state television a different kind of event was being broadcast: It asserted that armed demonstrators had fired at the army and were using children as human shields. Hours later, amid television images of bodies strewn on the streets around the state television building, the military called on "honest" Egyptians "to take to the streets to protect the army from the assailants."

The call turned a confrontation between protestors and troops into a free-for-all, as thousands of Muslim Egyptians flooded into Abdel Moneim Riad Square, where tear gas was being fired indiscriminately and gun shots pierced the air every few minutes.

Some came in support of the protestors, expanding the scope of the protest far beyond its initial Coptic-rights agenda. "Muslims and Christians are one hand," declared the demonstrators, now a sectarian mix, while chanting slogans against the army, which rules Egypt through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

But even more of those who came were conservative Muslims, heeding the government's call to attack the demonstrators.

"A sheikh," said one stunned protester, clutching his bandaged head, blood beginning to soak through, "a sheikh threw a stone at us and hit me in the head."

"We all know that state TV is unreliable and does not provide real and true information to the people of Egypt," said one protester, standing and watching as rows of soldiers took up positions near Tahrir Square in an effort to prevent protesters from massing. As gunshots were heard, it was the soldiers ahead who ducked for cover, as scores of people who had gathered nearby turned and moved away from the area.

As midnight fell on Cairo, a curfew was imposed over downtown and Prime Minister Essam Sharaf went on national television, saying the protests were the result of "outside" influence. He called on those still in the streets to return home.

"What is taking place in Egypt is not a sectarian strife but a plan to divide the country," said ahead of an emergency cabinet meeting on Monday to discuss the violence.

State media, and much of the international press, reported between three and 12 soldiers had been killed by protesters' bullets, but evidence of these deaths could not be found by early Monday morning. No outlet could independently verify any military personnel being killed.

For hours after the violence subsided after midnight, Egyptians across all religious and social backgrounds were still attempting to make sense of the situation. In a nation that still predominantly supports the military, the use of the media to divide people and broadcast rumors marked a further deterioration in the relations between SCAF and the opposition.

"I don't really know what to think," one prominent activist, who asked not to be named due to the sensitive situation with the SCAF, told The Media Line. "Right now I am shocked, worried and if the situation continues and gets any worse, we could see the beginnings of a civil war."


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