Muslims and Christians who attended a funeral for the victims of Sunday night’s crackdown chanted angrily for the dismissal of the country’s military chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
The bloodshed, in which at least 25 people were killed and more than 300 wounded, marked the most powerful blow to the military’s image as the protector of the revolution, a status it earned by showing restraint in the face of a popular uprising.
Since it assumed control of Egypt on Feb. 11, the military has been criticized for governing erratically and failing to uphold the democratic principles that fueled the revolution. Soldiers have been accused of using excessive force in some instances and of failing to intervene in others.
“The army realizes that its forces committed a massacre against a religious minority,” said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “There is no telling what will follow.”
Perhaps the most troubling lesson from Sunday’s unrest was the ease with which simmering sectarian tensions and a mob mentality could unleash chaos in a country ruled for decades as a police state.
That dynamic poses a dilemma for the military leadership, which must balance its desire to maintain stability with a pledge to oversee a transition to democracy. Some observers fear that commanders could use the rising tension as a pretext to delay the shift to civilian rule and rely more heavily on authoritarian tactics.
Sunday’s events, and other recent steps by the military, including its indecision on the electoral process, show that its leaders are still learning how to govern, said Adel Iskandar, an Egyptian American who teaches communications and contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University. “A lot of people believe that this is the second phase of the revolution, and the next institution to be confronted is the military.”
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said the violence was a further setback to what the country’s leaders had acknowledged has been a difficult transition to democracy. In a televised address late Sunday, he blamed the unrest on “hidden hands, domestic and foreign,” resorting to a line Egypt’s interim rulers have used in recent months to try to absolve themselves of roles in the country’s woes.
The military council said Monday that it would not allow a rift between the military and the people to grow. It said it would form a committee to investigate the incident and take the “necessary precautions to stabilize security,” and it promised to hand over power to a civilian government. The statement appeared to be a response to critics who accused the military of using the violence as an excuse to prolong its rule.