A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests here against the military council now ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.
When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.
Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.
“Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”
Thousands filled the streets of downtown, many armed with rocks, clubs or machetes. Witnesses said several protesters were crushed under military vehicles and the Health Ministry said that about 20 were undergoing surgery for bullet wounds.
Protesters responding to the news reportedly took to the streets in Alexandria as well.
The protest took place against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Christians had joined the pro-democracy protests in large numbers, hoping for the protections of a pluralistic, democratic state, but a surge in power of Islamists has raised fears of how much tolerance majority rule will allow.
But the most common refrain of the protests on Sunday was, “The people want to bring down the field marshal,” adapting the signature chant of the revolution to call for the resignation of the military’s top officer, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
“Muslims and Christians are one hand,” some chanted.
The military and riot police, on the other hand, appeared at some points to be working in tandem with Muslims who were lashing out at the Coptic Christians. As security forces cleared the streets around 10 p.m., police officers in riot gear marched back and forth through the streets of downtown alongside a swarm of hundreds of men armed with clubs and stones chanting, “The people want to bring down the Christians,” and, later, “Islamic, Islamic.”
“Until when are we going to live in this terror?” asked a Christian demonstrator who gave his name only as John. “This is not the issue of Muslim and Christian, this is the issue of the freedom that we demanded and can’t find.”
By the end of the night, as clouds of tear gas floated through the dark streets and the crosses carried by the original Christian demonstrators had disappeared, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was fighting whom.
At one point, groups of riot police officers were seen beating Muslim protesters, who were shouting, in Arabic, “God is Great!” while a few yards away other Muslims were breaking pavement into rocks to hurl in the direction of a group of Christians.
“It is chaos,” said Omar el-Shamy, a Muslim student who had spent much of the revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and returned again to help support the Christians against the military. “I was standing with a group of people and suddenly they were chanting with the army! I don’t know what is going on.”
State television announced a curfew in downtown Cairo beginning at 2 a.m., and the civilian cabinet, which serves under the military council, said that a committee headed by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was meeting to address the crisis. The cabinet said it would not allow any interference with “national unity” or “the path of the democratic transition,” noting that a first step, the registration of parliamentary candidates for elections Nov. 28, will begin Wednesday.
“What’s happening is not sectarian tension,” Mr. Sharaf said in a telephone interview with state television. “It is an escalating plan for the fall and fragmentation of the state. There’s a feeling of a conspiracy theory to keep Egypt from having the elections that will lead it to democracy.”
Echoing the Mubarak government’s propaganda, he added, “There are hidden hands involved and we will not leave them."
Public patience with both street protests and military rule has grown increasingly thin. The military, initially celebrated as the savior of the revolution for ushering Mr. Mubarak out the door, has become a subject of public ire both for its failure to establish stability and for its repeated deferrals of its pledged exit from power.
In a timetable laid out last week, the military’s top officers said they expected to finish parliamentary elections by March but wait for the subsequent drafting and ratification of a constitution before holding a presidential election. That schedule could leave the military as an all-powerful chief executive for another two years or more. Newspapers and talk shows, once cowed by the military’s threats to censor any perceived insult, have begin openly debating whether the military will follow through on its commitments to democracy.
Where previous Christian demonstrations here appealed to the military for protection against radical Islamists, Sunday’s demonstration began from the start as a protest against the military’s stewardship of the government.
Christians who marched from the neighborhood of Shubra to the radio and television building to protest the partial dismantling of a church near the southern city of Aswan, said that they scuffled at least three times with neighbors who did not want them to pass.
But the violence did not escalate until they joined another demonstration at the radio and television headquarters around 6 p.m. Demonstrators and plainclothes security forces began throwing rocks at each other.
State news media reported that at least three security officers had died in attacks by Christian protesters, though those accounts could not be confirmed. The protesters did not appear to be armed and they insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.
In retaliation, military vehicles began driving into protesters, killing at least six, including one with a crushed skull, several witnesses said. Some said they saw more than 15 mangled bodies. Photographs said to depict some of them circulated online.
Father Ephraim Magdy, a priest fleeing the tear gas, said he saw soldiers fire live bullets at protesters, and showed a journalist two bullet shells. “It is up to the military to explain what happened, but I see it as persecution,” he said. “I felt that they were monsters. It’s impossible for them to be Egyptians, let alone members of the army that protected the revolution.”