Egypt’s deputy prime minister resigned on Tuesday over clashes that killed 25 people, mainly Coptic Christians, amid mounting anger at the ruling military and calls for the premier to quit.
Hazem al-Beblawi announced his resignation, saying that despite having no direct involvement in the clashes, the government ultimately bore responsibility for what happened.
“The current circumstances are very difficult and require a new and different way of thinking and working,” Beblawi was quoted as saying by the official MENA news agency.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s military ruler, rejected Beblawi’s resignation, government spokesman Mohammed Hegazi said without elaborating, MENA later reported.
On Sunday, 25 people were killed and more than 300 injured when a protest demonstration by Copts was attacked by the army and thugs, sparking furious condemnation of the leadership’s handling of the transition from Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Military prosecutors said they have remanded 28 people in custody — both Muslims and Christians — for 15 days pending investigations, MENA reported.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power when Mubarak was ousted in February, had tasked Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government to immediately form a fact-finding panel to investigate the clashes.
The UN human rights office urged Egypt to ensure that any probes are conducted in an impartial and independent manner.
Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the authorities “to ensure the impartiality and independence of any investigation undertaken into the incident.”
Political and religious leaders spent Monday in crisis talks, amid fears of widespread sectarian unrest threatening an already fragile transition.
Copts were protesting on Sunday against a recent attack in which a recently renovated village church was attacked in the southern province of Aswan.
State television accused the demonstrators of firing shots that killed three soldiers, prompting fights between Christians and Muslims.
But furious Copts said the security forces attacked the demonstrators, driving vehicles into the crowd and crushing several people.
New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch has called for a “prompt, thorough and impartial” investigation, which “should specifically address the killing of at least 17 Coptic Christian demonstrators who appear to have been run over by military vehicles.”
“It should also examine the role of the military and police officers in the violence,” HRW said in a statement.
Thousands of people attended a service at the Coptic cathedral in Cairo late on Monday for the funerals of 17 demonstrators.
Live television showed the coffins being brought in a procession from the Copt hospital in downtown Cairo where autopsies were carried out.
Earlier on Monday, hundreds had gathered outside the Coptic Hospital, chanting slogans against the military council and its head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
Copts complain of systematic discrimination, but since Mubarak’s fall, tensions have also mounted between the military — initially hailed for not siding with Mubarak — and groups which spearheaded the revolt.
Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church led by Pope Shenuda III accused “infiltrators” of triggering the street battle on the Nile waterfront, while the country’s top Muslim official, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, urged the cabinet to swiftly issue a unified law on building places of worship.
The cabinet vowed on Monday to look into amending religious laws which would give Copts more guarantees to freedom of worship.
But after months of tensions, unrest and clashes, some say the measure is too little too late.
On Tuesday, leading independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm called for the resignation of the prime minister.
“The state has lost its stature, the regime is on the verge of collapse, and Sharaf’s government has run out of credit. All that is left to say is Sharaf, resign,” it said in a front page editorial.
The liberal Wafd party’s mouthpiece echoed the view: “After what has happened, we can say that he cannot serve as a prime minister and he must leave his post.”
International calls for restraint poured in, as the Arab world’s most populous nation teetered on the edge of widespread unrest, and activists feared their revolution was crumbling.
Saudi Arabia urged Egypt to exercise restraint, White House spokesman Jay Carney said US President Barack Obama was “deeply concerned,” and a “deeply saddened” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the Egyptian military to defend “all faiths” in the country.
Amnesty International said the military “must urgently explain how a protest against religious discrimination turned into a bloodbath.”
“One can only wonder what orders were given that could have led to military vehicles running down protesters on the streets. If the military police and other security forces were not acting under orders, it raises questions about their ability to police demonstrations in the first place,” it said.
The International Federation for Human Rights condemned the “use of excessive force by the army to control mainly peaceful demonstrations,” with IFHR president Souhayr Belhassen saying this raised the question about the SCAF’s ability to lead the transition.