Egypt’s new government has warned of a “counter-revolution” following a series of deadly political and religious clashes blamed on diehards of the former regime.
The government said it “is fully committed to the interests of the people and to implementing the goals of the revolution; and it will stand firm against plans for a counter-revolution,” according to state news agency MENA.
Meanwhile, the newly appointed cabinet met with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to propose a law criminalising threatening behaviour, MENA said.
A statement later said the cabinet had discussed “developments in the country, specifically the acts that have hindered daily life, acts of thuggery, incitement, intimidation and tensions affecting national unity”.
Accordingly, it has “ordered the swift return of police forces, in their full capacity, back to the streets” and “urged citizens to cooperate with the police”.
On Tuesday, clashes killed at least 13 in Cairo, the health ministry said.
Bloody fighting broke out in the working-class Cairo district of Moqattam when Muslims confronted Christians who had been blocking a main road in protest at the burning of a church last week in the provincial town of Sol, south of Cairo.
The attack on the church came after clashes between Copts and Muslims that left two people dead.
Father Boutros Roshdy of a Moqattam church said at least seven Coptic Christians were among the dead.
Meanwhile, in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of anti-regime protests that toppled president Hosni Mubarak, attackers armed with knives and machetes waded into hundreds of pro-democracy activists on Wednesday, witnesses said.
Stone-throwing skirmishes raged, and activists were gathering sticks and stockpiling rocks to defend themselves.
By early evening, the army had restored order in the square, dismantling tents pitched by protesters shortly after anti-regime riots erupted on January 25, and detaining several protesters, MENA said.
The violence, widely blamed on remnants of Mubarak’s regime, revealed the security vacuum created by police, who disappeared from the streets during January protests that led to Mubarak’s resignation.
In Washington, the State Department called on the military authorities to prosecute those behind the sectarian clashes.
“We have urged the Egyptian transitional government to act swiftly to bring the perpetrators of that violence to justice,” spokesman Mark Toner said when asked whether Washington had raised the issue with Cairo.
Mr Toner told reporters US officials were concerned about attacks on Coptic Christians and “obviously condemn the violence”.
He called on Egyptians to “remember the sense of unity” they had when they called for Mubarak’s ouster in Tahrir Square.
He urged them to “refrain from any kind of violence and to go back to that sense of peaceful demonstration and expression that was the hallmark of the protests that brought Mubarak out of power”.
Asked whether there were any signs the military condones the violence or might be behind it, Toner replied: “We don’t have any indications of that.”
Amnesty International condemned what it called the army’s “heavy-handed actions to clear Cairo’s Tahrir Square”.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that the army should participate in violently breaking up the peaceful protests”, said the London-based watchdog’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
“The Supreme Military Council has the duty to uphold the right to peaceful protest,” Hadj Sahraoui said.
On Monday, the council vowed to have the Sol church rebuilt and to prosecute those behind the arson attack.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition movement, blamed diehards of the Mubarak regime of inciting the violence.
It called on “everyone to stand together to support our armed forces and the cabinet so that they can fulfill the demands of the revolution”.
Egypt’s military rulers have been battling to steer the country through a fragile transition since Mubarak was overthrown on February 11, promising to pave the way for a free democratic society.
Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population, complain of systematic discrimination and have been the target of several sectarian attacks. Agencies