CAIRO — Videos of military armored vehicles plowing through Christian protesters and images of their flattened bodies are fueling rage against the ruling army generals, even beyond Egypt's Christian community. Activists accused the military of fomenting sectarian hatred as a way to end protests and halt criticism.
Anger was also turning on state television, blamed for inciting attacks on Coptic Christians as the military crushed a Christian protest late Sunday, leaving 26 dead in the worst violence since the February fall of Hosni Mubarak.
The bloodshed was seen by many activists as a turning point in Egypt's already chaotic transition: the deadliest use of force against protesters by the military, which has touted itself as the "protector of the revolution." Criticism has been mounting that the military, which took power after Mubarak's ouster, has adopted the same tactics as the former regime and has been slow to bring real change.
The repercussions began to hit the interim civilian government. Finance Minister Hazem El-Beblawi handed in his resignation over the government's handling of Sunday's protest. El-Beblawi, who is also deputy prime minister, effectively told Prime Minister Essam Sharaf that "he can't work like this," said an aide to the minister who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Christians vented their fury at the overnight funeral at the Coptic Christian Cathedral for 17 of the at least 21 Christians killed in the army attack.
Prayers were interrupted by chants of "Down with military rule" and "The people want to topple the field marshal," – a reference to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling military council. No state official or military official were present at the funeral.
Egypt's 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 recent years, increasingly influential ultraconservative Muslims, known as Salafis, have spread rhetoric that Christians are trying to take over, protesting against the building of churches and accusing Christians of hoarding stocks of weapons. Violence against Christians, the majority of whom belong to the orthodox Coptic Church, has mounted since the fall of Mubarak as state control has loosened.
Bahy Eldeen Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the military may have counted on sectarian sentiment against Christians to allow it to crush the protest and send a signal that it will no longer tolerate civil unrest and criticism.
"The message is to the whole society, not to Christians in particular. I believe this is all in preparation with wider confrontation," Hassan said. "I am afraid they used the Coptic Christians exploiting sectarianism and knowing that Christians will receive less sharper response from the public," he added.
Sunday night's confrontation began when thousands of Coptic Christians marched to the state television building, located on a main boulevard along the Nile, to stage a sit-in protesting a recent attack on a church in southern Egypt.
Witnesses said the gathering was peaceful until it was attacked. Video footage showed the crowd chanting slogans until riot police and soldiers descended on them.
In the ensuing mayhem, footage shows armored military vehicles barreling through the crowd back and forth at high speeds. From the back of one vehicle, a soldier opens fire wildly on protesters. The footage – both amateur video posted on YouTube and media video – showed bodies with crushed heads or bleeding limbs.
Young Christian Vivian Magdi, whose fiance was killed when an armored vehicle ran him over, gave an account to Egyptian private network ON TV.
"His body was in the middle of the wheels. His legs were torn. His head hit the pavement, breaking his skull," she said. "Soldiers gathered around us and started to beat him up," a tearful Magdi said. "I begged them to leave him. He is not breathing," she said. "Then a soldier with a red cap came, shouting, cursing and hitting me with a stick then tried to beat him up. I threw my body on him (her fiance) ... and the soldier said to me: 'You infidel, why are you here?'"
During the bloodshed, a state TV presenter urged "honest Egyptians" to go protect the army, saying troops were under attack from the Christian protesters. A scroll on their report read, "Coptic protesters are pelting soldiers with stones and Molotov cocktails," as presenter Rasha Magdi reported three soldiers killed. "By whose hands? Not the Israelis, not the enemy, but by the hands of the sons of the nation," she said. Its continual coverage over the hours made little or no mention of protesters killed.
Soon, bands of young Muslim men also descended on the scene, armed with sticks, swords, firebombs and firearms, and clashed with the stone-throwing Christians.
Forensic reports for 17 slain protesters released Monday showed they died from being crushed by armored vehicles or from gunshots. Another died from a sword blow to the head. Another body was headless. The military has suggested soldiers were killed, but has not officially confirmed deaths or said how many.
"The TV was used as the tool for instigating sectarianism and hatred to religion," Hassan said. "This is the first time in the history of the state media to play this role," he added. "The calls on TV fueled violence and increased the number of victims."
Even after the riot, assailants roamed the streets looking for Christians to beat up. In some cases, they pulled men and women suspected of being Christian out of taxis and private cars and cordoned off a Coptic Hospital where the killed and wounded were taken. Several cars were set on fire and shops were smashed.
In the days that followed, state TV ran only interviews with purportedly injured army soldiers, who claimed the protesters opened fire, though witnesses denied the protesters had guns.
A number of producers and staffers on state TV denounced the coverage. "I am embarrassed that I work in the TV. The Egyptian television is calling for a civil war between Christians and Muslims. The Egyptian television proved that it is a slave to whoever is the master," one presenter, Dina Rassmi, said on her Facebook page.
The military has said nothing about the circumstances of the violence, though the state news agency said it would hold a press conference Wednesday. In a statement Monday, it vowed only to take the "necessary precautions to stabilize security" and use the full weight of the law to prosecute individuals involved in violence, whether by participation or incitement.
In an apparent response to concerns it will use the violence as an excuse to prolong its rule, the council pledged to make good on its promise to hand over power.
Amid the turmoil, officials are to start on Wednesday accepting candidates to run in Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, due to begin on Nov. 26.