Dressed in black, Teresa Youssef crouched sobbing and banging on the wooden coffin adorned with a large photograph of a young man, outside the morgue at the Coptic Hospital in Cairo.
“Get up, Mina,” she cried, to the 20-year-old in the coffin who was killed by a bullet which burst his lungs. “He was a lion. He had no weapon but he defended us when we were attacked.”
Mina Danial was one of some 25 people, mostly Coptic Christians, killed on Sunday evening when Egyptian military police used force to disperse a demonstration by thousands angered by the burning of a church in the south of the country. The violence, in front of the television building in downtown Cairo, was the bloodiest in the country since the popular uprising which ousted Hosni Mubarak, the former president, in February.
By Monday morning 17 bodies lay in the morgue of the Coptic Hospital, some with bullet wounds, others with smashed heads and limbs after armoured vehicles, driven by military police, ploughed into demonstrators to disperse them.
“They shot at us and the armoured vehicles shook the ground under us as they crushed people,” said Ms Youssef, one of the demonstrators. “We tried to pull our friends out by their feet but we could not.”
The violence in central Cairo has shocked Egyptians and brought renewed calls for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled the county since the fall of Mr Mubarak, to speed up the transition to elected rule. The council on Monday ordered an investigation into the violence, while Pope Shenouda, the head of the Coptic church, alleged that unknown individuals infiltrated the demonstration to provoke the army to attack the Christians.
In the current atmosphere of mistrust, many Egyptians believe remnants of the former regime are intent on derailing the revolution. Others put the blame on the army.
“The military council is the main reason for what happened last night,” said Ahmed Maher, head of April 6, one of the youth groups which launched the revolt against the former president. “They are using the same tactics used by Mubarak to address sectarian problems [by failing to take action against Muslims who burnt down the church in Upper Egypt.] State television was essentially inciting against the Christians. We need to transfer authority to an elected government as soon as possible.”
The military council initially said it wanted to leave power after six months, during which parliamentary and presidential elections would be held.
It now appears the generals will be in power at least until the end of 2012, when a new president is due to be elected. Although the army is still popular and many Egyptians view the council as the last remaining protection against chaos, their management has come under mounting criticism.
Analysts say the generals’ lack of political experience and their authoritarian inclinations are at the root of the problems in Egypt, rather than a conspiracy to cling to power. The end of dictatorship has unleashed demands and pent-up anger from many sectors of Egyptian society.
Workers and civil servants have staged strikes for higher pay and ultraconservative Muslim groups have emerged. Sectarian tensions have risen, with more attacks against churches. The normally quiescent Christians have also been emboldened to demand their rights.
The military has used increasingly authoritarian methods to maintain its grip, referring thousands of civilians to military courts for summary trials and reviving Mr Mubarak’s hated emergency law and widening its scope.
On Sunday night, the security forces entered the offices of two independent television channels overlooking the demonstration to take them off air. Hisham Kassem, a political analyst, said the violence could have been prevented if the authorities had taken action against those who burnt the church in Aswan that sparked the demonstrations and against the provincial governor who made statements to the press which appeared to justify the attack.
“We do not have trained people in the army or the police capable of dispersing demonstrations peacefully,” he said.
“The solution has to be preventive by applying the law, not by using the methods of Mubarak. There is no joking with these [sectarian] issues. The country could go up in flames and history will place the blame with the council.”
Get alerts on Egypt after Morsi when a new story is published