Egyptian minister resigns over protester deaths

October 11, 2011 - 11:45 AM
Mideast Egypt

Angry Egyptian Christians protest against the military ruling council in Cairo Egypt, Monday, Oct.10, 2011, a day after at least more than two dozen were killed when Christians, angered by a recent church attack, clashed Sunday night with Muslims and security forces outside the state television building in central Cairo. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's finance minister resigned Tuesday to protest the government's handling of protests that left 26 dead, most of them Coptic Christian demonstrators, an aide to the minister said.

Overnight, some 20,000 mourners chanted slogans denouncing the ruling military during a funeral procession overnight for 17 Christians killed in the protest on Sunday night in Cairo. They accused the army of bearing primary responsibility.

At times, the prayers were interrupted by chants of "Down with military rule" and "The people want to topple the Marshal," — a reference to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi who heads the ruling military council that took power after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February. No state official or military official were present at the funeral.

Egypt's Coptic Christians, who represent about 10 percent of the 85 million people in this Muslim-majority nation, have long complained that they are second-class citizens in their own country. However violence against them in the eight months since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak has reached the highest level in decades.

The Coptic church has accused authorities of allowing repeated attacks on Christians with impunity. And Islamist extremists, known as Salafis, have gained power and freer rein since Mubarak's overthrow and are seen as instigators behind much of the violence against Christians.

In the aftermath of Sunday's clashes, the ruling military council condemned the surge in deadly violence as an attempt to undermine the state and signaled it would tighten its grip on power, something that would further infuriate activists who demand an end to military rule and a quick transition to democracy.

Activists say the generals are likely to take advantage of the nation's tenuous security situation to stay in power long enough to find a candidate they approve of to run for president in order to protest their vast interests.

The violence Sunday night began when thousands of Coptic Christians marched to the state television building to stage a sit-in over a recent attack on a church. As they marched, state television called on civilians to "protect" the army, casting the Christians as a mob seeking to undermine national unity.

Witnesses among the protesters said the march started out peaceful but turned violent when the Christians were attacked by civilians. What happened next is not fully clear. But a video circulating widely shows at least two military vehicle plowing through crowds of Christian protesters at high speed and running some of them over.

Rights activists and witnesses also say soldiers fired directly at protesters. State television claimed protesters had attacked soldiers. Clashes then broke out between Muslims backing riot police and soldiers on one side, and Christians and some Muslims on the other side. Forensic reports showed many of the deaths were caused by armored vehicles that ran down protesters, or by gunshots.

Finance Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, in a letter to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, said he was tendering his resignation over the "government's handling of Maspero," his aide told The Associated Press, referring to the state television building by its popular name. He effectively told Sharaf that he "can't work like this," the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

His resignation was the first by a senior government official in the aftermath of Sunday's clashes — the worst violence in Egypt since the uprising that ended in February.

In response to calls for his resignation, the prime minister said the Cabinet's resignation was ready if the military council, which holds ultimate power, wants to accept it.

In the two days since the violence, Christians have grown furious with the military rulers, hurling a string of accusations in their direction.

Overnight, mourners packed the Coptic cathedral in Cairo for the funerals that began shortly before midnight Monday and lasted for several hours. They filled hallways and corridors as prayers were led by top church officials, chanting slogans that denounced the military council.

After the service at the cathedral, a small group of mourners marched to central Cairo's Tahrir Square with the body of Mena Danial, one of the activists killed Sunday. Danial's friends said that he had wanted to have his funeral in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the role of military in killings of protesters should be probed thoroughly and impartially by an independent judicial authorities not by the military prosecutor.

"Time and again since February, the Egyptian military has used excessive force in responding to protests," said HRW spokesman Joe Stork. "The high death toll from the clashes on October 9 shows the urgent need for thorough investigations that lead to accountability and better protection for the Coptic community."

Security officials said at least three soldiers were killed in Sunday's violence, though it remains unclear how they died. No state funeral for them has been held yet.

The military prosecutor ordered 28 suspects detained for 15 days pending investigation. The prosecution alleged the suspects, the majority of them Coptic Christians, attacked members of the military and vandalized their equipment, according to state news agency MENA.

The Coptic church has announced three days mourning, fasting and prayers as Christians' sense of injustice hit a new high. One priest said that the fast was a means of showing loss of confidence in the authorities. He said such a measure had not been invoked by the church since former President Anwar Sadat's program of Islamizing laws during the 1970s.

Some Muslims said they would join the Christians in their fast in solidarity. A campaign named "Fast4Egypt" spread on social networking sites.

The outcry over the deaths may push Egypt's military rulers to address some Coptic grievances. The Cabinet has already announced it would issue a new law regulating houses of worship in two weeks, and that the law would criminalize religious discrimination.

In another apparent overture to Copts, authorities on Monday executed Hamam al-Kamouni, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting dead seven Christians in Christmas Eve in 2010 in Nagaa Hammadi, a town 290 miles (460 kilometers) south of Cairo.

In other developments, a military tribunal accepted Tuesday the appeal and ordered a retrial for a young blogger who is sentenced to three years for criticizing the military in his Web postings. Mikail Nabil Sanad, who turned 26 in jail, has been on hunger strike for nearly 50 days to protest his sentence. The retrial of Sanad was seen by activists as a reluctant nod to pressure for his release.