The Egyptian military’s crackdown on Coptic Christian protesters 18 months ago was one of the most chilling attacks on the country’s Christian minority in recent years.
As protesters marched against the burning of a church, the army rammed the demonstrators with an armoured car and opened fire into the crowds. State television whipped up anti-Christian sentiment, calling on “honest Egyptians” to help quell the Christian “mobs”.
A total of 29 people, mostly Copts, were killed in the incident. Some observers believed the army was trying to divert anger against the generals who took power after Hosni Mubarak was toppled.
Tensions between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts have erupted sporadically over the years, both under the new Islamist government and under Mubarak’s military dictatorship. But for the most part the two communities have rubbed along, and Christians – said to make up 10 per cent of Egypt’s 84 million-strong population – have proved themselves adept at playing down their faith when necessary.
Attacks in the past couple of years, such as the January 2011 bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that left 23 dead, have stoked fears of growing sectarian strife. And since the fall of Mubarak, Islamists have been emboldened, sparking more clashes.
Islamist President Mohammed Morsi has promised to protect Copts, but many fear the real danger could come if the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen its popularity recede in recent months, feels directly threatened by widespread unrest, triggered by anger at the worsening economic situation. Many will worry that if it casts about for someone to blame, the finger might fall on the country’s already persecuted Copts.