October 9 is a day that will not soon be forgotten in Egypt. Chaos and bloodshed engulfed the streets of Cairo in some of the worst violence the country has seen since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak eight months ago.
The day began with a peaceful march of 10,000 people, the majority of them Coptic Christians, who took to the streets to condemn the recent attack on a church in southern Egypt. A similar protest five days earlier had been violently dispersed by military police. The march began at around 4 pm in the predominantly Christian district of Shubra and headed towards the state television and radio building, known as Maspero, in downtown Cairo. Approximately two hours into the march, the demonstrators came under attack when men in civilian clothes pelted them with stones from surrounding streets and a nearby bridge. The attack eventually subsided and the marchers continued towards Maspero where a few thousand people had gathered to await their arrival.
Many in the crowd of men, women and children were holding lit candles aloft while others chanted. A group of Coptic priests, in traditional long black robes, stood in the midst of the crowd as people kissed their hands in respect. Traffic crawled along the Corniche El Nile, the main thoroughfare between the large state TV building and the Nile.
As the protesters gathered, a massive security presence had amassed around them. Armored personnel carriers (APCs) lined the far side of the street and hundreds of military police, clad in army fatigues and black helmets and wielding large wooden sticks and shields, stood on a median pavement in the center of the road facing the crowd. Dusk settled and the excitement began to build as the marchers were said to be approaching along the corniche.
It took only a few seconds for the peaceful scene to be transformed into one of violence and mayhem.
A line of military police crossed the street and formed a cordon directly in front of the protesters, holding them back as traffic inched by. The crowd suddenly swelled, pushing the military police back. Several protesters continued moving forward, forcing the soldiers to retreat past the median and across the street to where the APCs were stationed. One protester threw a rock that hit the side of an army vehicle.
Then the military attacked.
A line of military police rushed the crowd, swinging long wooden sticks and beating people. The sound of gunfire erupted in the air. People began to flee in all directions. Several fell over and were trampled in the stampede. The shooting continued as hundreds ran into a street behind the Hilton Ramses.
On the corniche in front of the hotel, APCs began driving at high speed through crowds of protesters. “An APC mounted the island in the middle of the road, like a maddened animal on a rampage,” writes journalist Sarah Carr in Al Masry Al Youm English Edition. “I saw a group of people disappear, sucked underneath it. It drove over them.”
Protesters retaliated by setting police vehicles on fire. Young men on motorcycles, riding two at a time, rushed into the melee to collect the wounded and bring them out. The sound of wailing filled the air. Many wounded, unconscious and wrapped in blankets, were carried through the streets. One man who appeared to have been shot in the stomach, his shirt soaked through with blood, was carried into an ambulance that had arrived at the scene.