Scenes before and after the violence around the march in Cairo (Photos: EPA)
A curfew was imposed on downtown Cairo, even as thousands of people tried to reach Tahrir Square, and clashes were also reported in Alexandria.
Security sources blamed the marchers, claiming two armoured vehicles, six private cars, and a public bus were burned, and State TV showed images of protesters beating a soldier. The demonstrators said they were attacked by bystanders who threw stones, bringing in police and the military who used excessive force. Video showed armoured vehicles driving into the crowd.
The rally was protesting the destruction of a church in southern Egypt and calling for equal rights for Copts.
Egypt's Cabinet, after an emergency meeting, said it would "not let any group manipulate the issue of national unity in Egypt or delay the process of democratic transformation". Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, described the events as a "conspiracy" that led to "unnecessary violence".
Mohamed Hegazy, the Cabinet spokesman, said that it would hold a special session on Monday and that a committee of prominent figures from the Coptic church and Al-Azhar mosque would meet.
A march of 10,000 Copts began today from Shubra to the State TV building in Maspero turned violent when protesters were attacked by stone throwing mobs from on top of the surrounding walls while they were trying to cross the Shubra tunnel. A 15-minute battle ensued as the Coptic protesters fought back and hurled stones at their assailants.
Gun shots were fired in the sky, leaving terrified demonstrators wondering aloud if they were going to be shot.
During the attack panic ensued as women protesters were told to stand under the bridge for safety as Coptic youth tried to contain the march. After the battle stopped the march, once again regained its peaceful nature and continued towards Maspero.
On their way to Maspero they stopped in the neighboring Galaa Street and were attacked once again. A car sped through the crowd and randomely shot at protesters. The march continued once again to Maspero where the protesters were attacked again with increased vigour and violence.
An Ahram Online correspondent at Maspero reports seeing glass being thrown down at protesters from inside the State Broadcasting building in Maspero while armoured personnel carriers were driven by the army through the crowds, hitting and running protesters over. Eyewitness accounts posted on Twitter detail people being shot by the armed forces and attacked by plain-clothed thugs, with fire consuming vehicles by the Nile.
Ambulances ferried tens of injured protesters away from the scene.
Later in the evening, Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, posted on Twitter that he saw 17 bodies in the morgue at the Coptic Hospital.
So far confirmed as being among those killed are Mina Daniel, an activist and blogger; Wael Yunna, a journalist for Coptic TV; and Michael Mosaad, an activist and member of the Maspero Youth Coalition.
The protest was organised by the Maspero Youth Union, a group of young Coptic activists to protest against the recent violations against Copts. The protesters chanted, ‘raise your head high you are a Copt,” and “no to burning of churches.” The protesters also chanted against the army, shouting “the people want the fall of the Field Marshall Tantawi,” and chanted: “Tantawi, where is your army, our homes and churches are being attacked.”
Many of the protesters held huge crosses, with one having an army garb dressed on it, with a poster stuck on it saying “We thought the army will unite us, but they divided us.”
The protesters were angry at the latest attack on the Coptic Church in the village of Merinab in Aswan when Muslim villagers attempted to block renovations underway at a Christian church in the majority Muslim village, charging that the building was a "guesthouse" that cannot be turned into a church. The protesters also demanded that the governor of Aswan be removed for justifying the attack on the church and saying that a permit was not issued. The protesters were also furious at the increasing attacks against Copts in recent months and the army’s lack of protection. They also demanded to know why the government of Essam Sharaf refused to introduce an anti-discrimination law as he promised last May, or finalise a draft for a unified building code for Muslims and Christians.
“You can call it whatever you like, anti-discrimination law, an anti-racism law,” fumed lawyer Nabil Ghabriel. “But the point it we want equality in this country.”
Another protester from Shubra, Lotfy Mikhael, insisted that the situation has continued to deteriorate since the revolution began.
“I feel that this is a cross Egypt’s Christians have to bear and we will never feel equal in this country,” Mikhael said. “All we want is to be treated the same as Muslims.”
The protest was mostly peaceful for the first hour, with protesters at one point creating a human cross in the middle of the Shubra Road. However, while nearing the Shubra tunnel, several protesters burned a picture of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi amid whistles and cheers. The situation quickly turned violent as they were hit by stone from assailants on top of them.
“The army is treating us the way Mubarak treated protesters during the revolution,” protester Mary Nour told Ahram Online after the stone throwing ended. “But we will never give up.”
The army used tear gas to disperse the remaining protesters in Maspero, with more rocks down thrown from the 6 October Bridge by police and armed forces. Security forces chased any protesters who had congregated on the bridge away from Maspero with tear gas cannisters hailing down throughout. Our correspondent reports seeing one protester shot in the shoulder with live round casings litter the ground.
Local residents in the Bulaq district of Cairo took part in the attack on the protest, brandishing weapons and throwing rocks at demonstrators, whom they accused of being "troublemakers."
According to one of our correspondents on the scene, "It looks like the Bulaq 'thugs' are taking charge now, the security forces have let them."
Immediately after filing over the phone, the same correspondent was set upon by an agry mob, accusing him of being a spy.