CAIRO (AP) — An army crackdown on a protest that killed more than 20 Christians has not only stunned Egyptians, it has left them with deeply torn feelings toward the force seen as the protector of the nation. Even supporters of the ruling military are grappling with the question of how the bloodshed could have happened.
The deaths a week ago deepened mistrust of the military among the "revolutionary" sector, the politically active liberal and leftist activists who have been leading protests against the generals' rule for months. They have become increasingly vocal in calls for the army to step aside.
A broader sector of the public has been thrown into shocked confusion. Many Egyptians view the military as the last bastion of stability — a force "made up of our own sons," as many often say — and tend to trust it to handle the transition toward a democratic system. So images of army troops wildly running over protesters with armored vehicles have jolted them.
Some try to find excuses for the ruling junta or nervously defend it. Intertwined in the reaction are the religious tensions between Egypt's Muslim majority and Christian minority. The fact that victims were Christians has made some less sympathetic or more willing to forgive the army's actions.
Others have been so shocked they have joined the criticism.
"This was an awful failure," said Mohammed Othman, a former army officer who now works as a pharmacist. "I think the (generals) lost credit and now we are in the countdown for them to leave."
Othman said his confidence in the military was gone. He can't bring himself to believe the accusations by some that troops killed protesters intentionally, but the bloodshed proved to him that the generals are not equipped to run civilian affairs.
Moreover, he's fears wider sectarian turmoil in Egypt. "I am too embarrassed to send condolences to my Christian friends," he said. "I personally need someone to give me condolences." Like others, he was now afraid to join protests, fearing chaos or security retaliation.
The violence was the deadliest since the military took over Egypt following the Feb. 11 fall of President Hosni Mubarak — and was a stark contrast to the idealistic sense of Muslim-Christian unity that flourished during the anti-Mubarak uprising.
It began Sunday night when thousands of Christians demonstrated outside the state television building, protesting an attack on a church in southern Egypt. Army troops waded in, and armored personnel carriers barreled through the crowds. The violence killed 26 people, including at least 21 Christians, some crushed by vehicles or shot to death. State media said three soldiers were among the dead.
In the first official press conference after the violence, the military tried to exonerate itself, blaming the Christians and "hidden hands" for starting the violence, denying its troops shot any protesters or intentionally ran them over. Witnesses said soldiers started the melee. Videos showing soldiers beating and shooting into crowds and armored vehicles seeming to chase protesters cast doubt on the military's account.
The public seemed torn in every direction. Some accept the military's version. Many activists accuse the military of intentionally sparking the bloodshed — or at least exploiting it and the sectarian tensions — to scare Egyptians from protesting and to justify its hold on power. They say the bloody attack has derailed discussion of how to hold parliament elections due to begin on Nov. 28.
On Friday, a march through Cairo denouncing the military and demanding justice for victims came under a hail of rocks thrown by army supporters.
Some Muslim clerics have hiked criticism of Christians' demands for equal rights. Christians, mainly from the Coptic Orthodox Church, make up around 10 percent of Egypt's population of 85 million.
A cleric delivering his Friday sermon in a state-run mosque in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria warned Christians against demanding a new law to ease restrictions on building churches and accused them of seeking foreign protection. Another cleric urged Egyptians to protect the military against protesters. The Muslim Brotherhood said now is not the time for Christians to press demands.
The tensions were on display at a candlelight vigil Thursday night to honor the slain Christians and denounce the military.
Among the crowd of several hundred was Sheik Osama. He sported the moustache-less beard and skull cap of an ultra-conservative Muslim, but he was attending in support of Christian victims. Days earlier, at their funeral, he raised an Orthodox Cross among the mourners, an image widely circulated on social networking sites as a symbol of Muslim-Christian unity.
"The (military) council wants to link the violence to sectarianism and make people forget about the revolution," he said Thursday.
Um Abdullah, a veiled company clerk in her 40s, argued with others in the crowd and dismissed talk that the military was to blame. She said the Christians aimed to "humiliate" the military.
"An Egyptian soldier appeared crying on TV. How can that be? Israel will take us lightly," she said, refusing to give her full name.
"The Copts have always picked a fight. They always say we are the real owners of this land. They take Muslim women and hold them in churches, and now they attack the army," she said. "They want to twist the military rulers' arms so they can get more churches. Why aren't they happy with the churches they've got?"
Another woman, Safaa, shouted at Um Abdullah for blaming the Copts, but she was reluctant to join demands the army step down.
"Say the army was to blame, but what else can we rely on?" she said, refusing to give her last name because of the tense discussions. A veiled woman in her 50s, she participated from early on in the 18-day wave of protests that brought down Mubarak.
"But we can't beat down on the army. We are forced to accept them," she said. "Say your father beat you. Wouldn't you give him whatever he beats you with and tell him to do it again? He is your father."
The violence showed an ugly face of sectarianism, even among the military troops.
A woman whose fiance was crushed by an armored vehicle during the mayhem said a military police officer kicked his corpse and hit her on the back calling her "an infidel." Other witnesses said police and military chased after Christians, shouting "Infidels, sons of dogs."
They broke into a nearby building, searching for Christians. Inside, they stormed the office of January 25 TV, a pro-revolution station, said a producer, Hossam Haddad.
A frenzied military officer demanded to see staffers' IDs, shouting "One of my comrades was killed, you sons of dogs." He then kicked a Christian staffer in the face with his combat boots, Haddad said.
The station has been off the air since.