On the morning of Sunday, October 9, members of Cairo’s large Coptic community went to the Abbasiya Cathedral, the papal headquarters of the Coptic Church. They prayed, as a Coptic youth leader told me, “for the day to begin and end peacefully, and for a million people to turn up” at the protest march to the State TV Building planned for that afternoon. But the day would be far from peaceful: by its end, more than two dozen civilians, many of them Copts, and several soldiers, would be dead; and in the days since, many Egyptians have come to regard the events surrounding the march as a dark turning point in the country’s bid to build an inclusive democratic society.
The march had been organized to protest growing attacks on churches and the lack of protection for the country’s large Coptic minority under Egypt’s military-backed interim government: most recently, on September 30, Muslim fanatics burned down a church in Aswan. The protest route—approved by the authorities—would go from a central square in the densely Coptic neighborhood of Shubra, pass through downtown Cairo, and end on the wide street and sidewalks in front of Maspero, the huge State TV and Radio Building —an area that in the months since the revolution had become the Tahrir Square of the Coptic community. (“Our voices are never heard, so we protest here, right under the nose of State TV, to make a point,” one protester told me back in May.)