CAIRO // Egypt's deputy prime minister resigned yesterday over the government's handling of protests earlier this week that left 26 dead, most of them Coptic Christians.
The resignation of Hazem El Beblawi, who was appointed to the post by the ruling military council in July, was the first by a senior government official after Sunday's clashes - the worst violence in Egypt since the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
"The current circumstances are very difficult and require a new and different way of thinking and working," Mr El Beblawi was quoted as saying by the official MENA news agency. An aide to the minister, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Mr El Beblawi had expressed his exasperation to Easan Sharaf, the prime minister, that he "can't work like this".
Mona Makram-Ebeid, a member of Mr El Beblawi's political party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and political science professor at American University in Cairo, said the resignation was "a real slap in the face to all authorities."
"As a party, we're very proud" said Ms Mona Makram-Ebeid. "It's an important Muslim figure resenting what has happened."
Yesterday, the government began investigating the violence, which injured more than 300 people, on the request of the military council.
Military prosecutors said they had arrested 28 people, both Muslims and Christians, according to the MENA news agency.
The violence on Sunday night began when thousands of Coptic Christians marched to the state television building to stage a sit-in over a recent attack on a church.
Witnesses among the protesters said the march started out peaceful but turned violent when the Christians were attacked by civilians. What happened next is not fully clear. But a video circulating widely shows at least two military vehicle ploughing through crowds of Christian protesters at high speed and running some of them over.
Rights activists and witnesses also say soldiers fired directly at protesters. State television claimed protesters had attacked soldiers. Clashes then broke out between Muslims backing riot police and soldiers on one side, and Christians and some Muslims on the other side.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a statement on Monday calling for independent judicial authorities to investigate.
"Time and again since February, the Egyptian military has used excessive force in responding to protests," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The high death toll from the clashes on October 9 shows the urgent need for thorough investigations that lead to accountability and better protection for the Coptic community."
The Coptic Christian community has long complained of discriminatory construction laws regarding the building of churches and exclusion from higher positions in government and universities.
But many fear worsening violence and discrimination since Mr Mubarak was ousted. They are also uneasy after an increasing number of attacks on their churches and religious figures have gone largely unpunished in the recent months.
"Copts are much more vulnerable now than ever before, far more traumatised," said Ms Makram-Ebeid.
In May, Islamic conservatives burnt a church in Cairo's poorer district of Imbaba over rumours that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held prisoner in a local church. Twelve died during the protests.
Last Sunday's protests were in response to Muslims setting fire to a church in Aswan on 30 September. There were reports the church was being constructed illegally, despite documents presented by religious officials showing they had the necessary permission.
"Violence between Muslims and Christians means instability directly in society. It'll mobilise the tensions and bring clashes into daily life," said Nabil Abdel Fatteh, a researcher at Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies//WHERE??.
"The revolution has made the Copts of today different than before," said Ms Makram-Ebeid. "They will not turn the other cheek, but are courageous after having joined in demanding their dignity, human rights, and hopes."
With additional reporting from Associated Press and Agence France-Presse