CAIRO — Egypt’s military leaders denied Wednesday that soldiers had purposely killed Christian protesters in the capital last weekend, saying in their first public statement since the deadly incident that troops had opened fire in response to attacks by rock-throwing demonstrators.
“It is a fact that citizens lost their lives, but the military did not fire at them, because of the principles that we’ve instilled,” Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said at a news conference. “Those principles are that the armed forces can never fire at its people and that there is no circumstance that can justify that.”
At least 25 people died and hundreds were injured in the violence that erupted Sunday night after a group of Coptic Christians took to the streets, along with Muslim supporters, to demand their rights and protest the burning of a church in the south. According to witnesses and video footage, soldiers plowed their vehicles into the crowd when protesters refused to disperse and opened fire after several vehicles were torched.
The incident has become the most significant challenge to the military council’s reputation since it took power Feb. 11, and many Egyptians view it as a massacre. At the news conference Wednesday, the generals showed videos of demonstrators throwing rocks and chasing and beating a soldier. The dead included three soldiers, according to state television.
Maj. Gen. Adel Emara said that deliberately driving into people was not in the military’s “dictionary.”
“History never saw us run anyone over, not even fighting our enemies,” he said.
Emara blamed the violence on persisting chaos in Egypt and on forces working to reverse the country’s revolution, a reference to the 18-day uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, but he said that soldiers might have run over some people accidentally.
Asked who shot unarmed demonstrators, Hegazy said that the government was still searching for the answer but that “the military definitely did not.” The generals reiterated Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s pledge for an investigation that would reveal those responsible for the killings.
Hegazy called for unity and assured the public that the military’s role is to “protect and not to confront the people.”
Also Wednesday, Finance Minister Hazem Beblawi reversed his decision to step down in protest against the killings, a day after the military council had rejected his tendered resignation.
Hassieb is a special correspondent.