Leading article: Egypt's army must begin to honour its promises

The violence against the Coptic Christian minority is part of wider instabilities

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The resignation of Egypt's Finance Minister yesterday, in protest at the killing of 25 people by the army, has raised the temperature in an already overheated situation. That the largely peaceful revolution which overthrew President Hosni Mubarak – and proved such a defining moment in the Arab Spring – is in danger of descending into chaos and violence is a matter of grave concern.

The Egyptian army, which stepped in to take charge with popular support, is at the centre of the growing crisis. Sectarian tensions are rising; strikes for higher salaries have become common among public sector workers; unemployment, poverty and inflation are high and economic growth low. In a country where more than 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line – and the very poorest rely on groups like the Muslim Brotherhood for their basic needs – the potential for trouble is growing rather than receding.

The violence against Egypt's Coptic Christian minority is in part a symptom of the wider instability. They stand to lose more than any other group in a country whose future could be anything from a liberal democracy to an Islamic republic, but where a drifting continuation of military rule looks increasingly likely.

Those killed this week were Christian demonstrators who were protesting against the burning of a church in southern Egypt. Low-level discrimination against the Copts has been common for decades but the Islamist revival in recent times has heightened tensions. Still, they were to some extent protected under the Mubarak regime, which made gestures of support to the community. It was part of Mubarak's approach to keep order using divide-and-rule tactics plus a heavy-handed security machine.

The fear is that now the oppression is lifted, inter-community violence might increase, as it did in post-Tito Yugoslavia. After the fall of Mubarak, anti-Coptic riots of growing violence broke out in various cities, and the army appeared to tolerate them. More recently, troops have looked on as churches were burned. Now the army-controlled media has been encouraging Islamist radicals to take the law into their own hands against the "Christian mob".

But that is only part of the worry about the situation in Egypt. Senior army officers have repeatedly said they wish to hand power over to civilians as soon as possible. But the timetable keeps being extended. And they are now talking of staying in office for at least a year, possibly even longer. Foreign investors were already becoming concerned by erratic economic decisions. Now a peaceful demonstration demanding justice has been crushed, leaving some protesters dead and 500 more injured.

The omens are not good. The Copts constitute up to 15 per cent of the population, but they are far better educated than the majority Muslim population. Many are fleeing the country. Some reports suggest 60,000 may have gone since Mubarak fell. Egypt as a whole will suffer if it follows the Iraqi example, where more than half of the Christian population – some 400,000 people – have been driven out in fear of Islamist pogroms.

Egypt should be a model for the right kind of change in the Arab world. That may still be possible. Political groups have come together recently and demanded that the military institute a representative civil government, ending emergency laws and the trial of civilians in military courts. They have presented four possible routes to civilian rule by the middle of next year. Egypt's top brass must now follow one of them, simplify the complex voting procedures and speed up the process of electing a president. Democracy is a delicate bloom. It will not be nurtured without the co-operation and collective efforts of all parts of Egyptian society. The process must begin soon.

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