|Witnesses said the army aided civilian mobs in attacking Coptic protesters on Sunday night [AFP]
The military-backed violence against mostly Christian demonstrators in Cairo on Sunday night would have been hard enough to forget without the armoured personnel carriers.
Unidentified gunmen, baton-wielding military police, roving bands of men chanting "Christians where are you, Islam is here" - by morning, the chaos in the heart of Egypt's capital had left at least 26 people dead and 327 wounded.
But it was the rampaging APCs that stand as the night's horrific symbol of military brutality and possible harbinger of worse to come. Video clearly shows the giant, camouflaged vehicles swerving into crowds of demonstrators, and witnesses reported that some people were run over.
|Video of a television broadcast uploaded to YouTube shows APCs swerving into crowds in central Cairo.
Loved ones who went to the morgues were left only with the terribly maimed bodies of those they once knew, the photographs of crushed faces too gruesome to dissiminate.
"A young woman sat by one of them clasping his hand and wailing," wrote freelance journalist Sarah Carr in al-Masry al-Youm. "Vivian and Michael, who were engaged to be married. Michael had been crushed, his leg destroyed."
The army has cracked down on post-revolution protests before, but never with the ferocity unleashed so rapidly on Sunday night. The seeming cooperation between security forces and angry crowds seeking out Christians also raised again the spectre of Egypt's festering sectarian divide, one which many suspect the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is eager to stoke in order to distract attention and justify its own heavy handedness, including the continued implementation of emergency law.
The conflagration comes at a time when many Egyptians fear the gains of their revolution are eroding in the face of continued rule by a military that seems willing to continue the old regime policy of malign neglect when it comes to religious violence.
"Inflation is off the charts, salaries aren't rising, people are really struggling, and at the same time many people are complaining of a roll back in civil liberties," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Zarwan said he wondered whether Christian anger was "the canary in the coalmine", an indicator of broader discontent around the bend.
"My concern for some time now is that this mix could ignite the unrest in some way," he said. "[But] I was imagining that we had more time until there'd be more violence."
Sectarian violence on the rise
Coptic Christians, who make up about ten per cent of the population, hold decades-old grievances over societal and legal inequality, but the immediate prelude to Sunday's protest was another attempted Coptic demonstration that had been violently dispersed by the military the previous Tuesday.
That day, Copts tried to rally outside Maspero, an office building on the Nile that houses the state television and radio operations, to express anger over a church burning in Aswan, a governorate in far south Egypt. The church burning was the latest episode in a dispute between Copts and Muslims in the town of Marinab, where Christians had wanted to convert a separate guesthouse into a church.
The Marinab dispute was typical of Egypt's sectarianism: Christians want to build churches with the same ease as Muslims build mosques, but the law does not treat the two equally.
Local disputes over construction, in addition to fights over conversions and real or perceived romantic relationships between Christians and Muslims, escalated into riots and occasionally deadly clashes more than 50 times in 2008 and 2009, the latest years for which the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) has published data.
|Women mourn the slain Coptic protesters at a cathedral in Cairo's Abbaseya neighbourhood [AFP]
Those incidents seem to have become more severe in 2011, beginning with the New Year's Eve bombing at the Two Saints Church in Alexandria that killed 23 people and wounded nearly 100, and continuing after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
In March, Copts and fundamentalist Salafi Muslims fought in Cairo's eastern outskirts, leaving six Christians dead and 51 people injured, and in May, a mob burned a church in the poor Imbaba neighbourhood, leaving 15 people dead and 242 injured in the overnight fighting as security forces watched.
"There's definitely been an escalation since the revolution," Carr told Al Jazeera. "Authorities are following the same policies as Mubarak, which is allowing the demonstrators who attack churches and attack Christians to get away with murder. No one is held to account."
While the army has reportedly put at least 10,000 people through military trials, many of them for committing petty crimes or for protesting, the eight defendants charged in the Marinab church burning were brought before a civilian court and have been released on a bail of 500 Egyptian pounds ($84), Carr said.
Often, inter-religious disputes are resolved informally, with a meeting between Coptic and Muslim representatives under the auspices of a local government official, according to the EIPR report.
"I think the impulse of a lot of people here, including some Christians, is to sweep the problem under the rug. The impulse is always to say: 'This couldn't possibly be Egyptians,'" Zarwan said, adding that the state needed to conduct an independent and credible investigation.
On Monday, the government executed the man it had convicted in connection with a January 2010 drive-by shooting at a church in the city of Nag Hammadi, which killed eight Copts and one Muslim, but the event passed mostly unnoticed.
Catching a Christian
The violence on Sunday night began almost as soon as a huge Christian march from the working-class Shobra neighbourhood reached the vicinity of Maspero, just a few hundred metres from Tahrir Square.
Soldiers began firing into the air as the march rounded a corner near the central artery of the 6th of October Bridge, according to Carr, who followed the protesters from Shobra. A crowd of people at the front of the march surged backwards as the APCs began speeding down the street, jumping a concrete barrier separating the lanes.
Gunfire came from all around, and Carr wrote that she saw gunners atop the APCs turning their machine guns, though she could not be certain whether they were firing.
Sarah Naguib, a blogger who was at the protest, said another crowd of civilians began pelting the marchers with stones as military police wielding batons and shields advanced. As the crowd fled, Naguib said she saw several people fall around her. She assumed they had been shot, but a soldier struck Naguib with a baton, and she did not stop to look during her scramble to get away.
"You hear the sound and you see them fall, and that's what makes sense in your mind," she said.
Carr could not determine whether the wounds she later saw in the morgue of the nearby Coptic Hospital came from gunfire, but activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was also at the hospital, wrote on Twitter that doctors had removed bullets from the dead.
|Some witnesses said the military intervened after protesters set fire to cars [EPA]
Ramy Yaacoub, a political analyst who arrived after the initial clash, said rock-throwing between the two sides continued for hours on the bridge and that some protesters were dragged away by opposing civilians with the help of riot police. Television broadcasts showed protesters pelting Central Security trucks with rocks and attempting to drag drivers out from inside.
Multiple witnesses said they did not see any weapons in the protesting crowd before the confrontation began.
Though some Muslims had joined the protest, the violence took on a sectarian edge as the night continued.
"Copts are running this way, they're dogs, beat them," Yaacoub said he heard some bystanders say. Others argued in favor of the protesters, explaining the church burning.
Hani Bushra, an Egyptian-American laywer who posted a testimony about the events on Facebook, said that during the fighting he was grabbed by a man who screamed to others that he had "caught a Christian". A crowd gathered, punching his head, taking his phone and attempting to search his bag. Some called him a "Christian dog".
After being taken to the police and showing them a US passport, Bushra waited in safety. Another crowd passed, chanting "Christians where are you, Islam is here," to the cheers of an army unit standing nearby. Bushra claimed he heard riot police receive an order to use live ammunition.
"This is not religious strife, this is state sponsored terrorism towards the Copts," he wrote.
In thrall to state media
Whether Sunday's violence escalates in the coming days depends heavily on the state's ability to hold anyone accountable, and the early signs have not inspired much confidence.
According to a security source, 45 people have been arrested, but they are charged with vandalism, attacking military personnel and damaging private cars. Justice Minister Mohamed el-Guindy has said that anyone involved in the violence would be sent to military court, another setback for those pushing to restore civilian control in Egypt.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who was appointed by the military junta, blamed domestic and foreign conspirators for the "chaos," but human rights groups and Coptic leaders said the military and political leaders were responsible. The military, meanwhile, called upon Sharaf's cabinet to launch an investigation, though it was unclear how that would proceed while military prosecutors also charged suspects.
"This is tragedy of state failures," Hossam Bahgat, director of the EIPR, told Al Jazeera. "It's unprecendented. Something was broken yesterday, and it may have been fatal. Our organisation has been investigating
and documenting sectarian violence for ten years now, [and] there is nothing like what we saw yesterday, precisely because it's the army."
Many called for the suspension or at least the reform of state media, which has long played a key role in the formation of Egyptian popular opinion and holds wide influence in large part due to the country's roughly 35 per cent illiteracy rate.
On Sunday night, state television aired images of wounded soldiers and called on viewers to defend the military at Maspero, which it said was under attack from the Christian protesters. Activists at the scene of the fighting blamed the station for motivating angry crowds to take to the streets.
"Egyptians overwhelmingly rely on state media ... If a story's not covered, they're going to rely on word of mouth," Yaacoub said. "The spinning of stories, or the lack of coverage, or indifferent or biased coverage, it is a disaster.
"If there's no investigation and no oversight and no accountability implemented for such situations [like Sunday], this will not go well for Egypt."
Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill