As the march moved forward, many more people joined in, and there were some 10,000 by the time we neared Maspero, just after sunset. I rushed ahead, taking a side street past rows of riot police to reach the State TV building in advance of the crowd. A few hundred Copts were already gathered there, and I noticed plainclothes State Security agents among them and other men lurking around who looked like they might be thugs. It was in those moments, as I stood at Maspero and the march approached the corniche, turning the corner, that chaos broke out. At first there was shouting, as the police used their batons to deter protesters, and then suddenly, a siren, before gunfire filled the air—not single shots, but rounds. The sound seemed to be coming from the front line, near the October 6 Bridge, which I now stood behind. It kept coming in bursts, and the marchers were running, many back in the direction of Tahrir, where they later tweeted that they were confronted by thugs and security forces.
Almost everyone I talked to thought the army was doing the shooting, saying that security forces were firing randomly at the crowd. More plausibly, from my vantage point and the accounts of some, it looked like the army had first fired warning shots in the air to prevent the protesters from reaching the TV Building, which some activists had been proposing to storm (a theory subsequently confirmed in part by the discovery of blank rounds at the site.) But this then raises the question of who else might have been shooting, since it became clear that live rounds were used.
One witness said the first shot came from behind the security forces’ front line, in the area between the bridge and Maspero. And a friend later told me a pickup truck had driven by the march as it was approaching the corniche, and that men had shot at the crowds through the windows, stirring panic. This weekend, I was shown a video that seemed to confirm this—it showed a pickup truck that had first gone to Maspero, where five or six men with clubs and swords had got off, pelted the army with stones, and beat some soldiers. Clearly there to stir trouble, these thugs cast themselves as “Copts”, putting the army on alert. The video shows them then driving off, in the wrong direction down the street and round the corner, towards the protesters. The account of the first gunshot coming from behind the army as the protesters approached might be explained by this mob—it is possible one of them stayed behind in Maspero.
At the time, rushing back in the direction of the side street as the crackling of gunshots filled the air, I found myself facing dozens of police in riot gear beating down protesters with batons. I returned to the main street a few meters away, where people were being knocked to the ground. Men around me—civilians—were throwing rocks in the direction of the march, and people had by that point begun screaming as the APCs, which had been stationed at the foot of the bridge, began maneuvering out of their sidewalk parking spots, and then roared, zigzagging down the corniche, pushing protesters onto sidewalks and to the ground as they picked up speed.
...In that first hour after the violence broke out, rocks and broken glass and Molotov cocktails rained down on us —some of it from what looked like thugs who had joined the crowd, some from atop 6 October Bridge, and some from the line of buildings adjacent to Maspero. (Someone said objects were being thrown from the State TV building itself.) Teargas was also fired, and it lingered in the air. I continued to hear shots, seemingly fired at random, no one could really tell from where. Protesters that I had seen marching lay injured. An army car was engulfed in flames—the first in a series of army and private vehicles that would be set on fire that night.
...For the next few hours, the violence ebbed and flowed between riot police, soldiers, Copts, and mobs. I could see clashes up on the bridge and was told that the army was chasing protesters through the streets of downtown. I was chased myself at one point, up a ramp. Young boys were also flocking in—many of them teenagers, some as young as nine or ten. They picked up rocks and threw them, challenging anyone to fight back, shrieking insults about Christians, and chanting for an Islamic state. Many of them looked familiar—the same youth I had seen gather outside the Israeli embassy a few weeks before, and at other protests in recent months that had turned violent. Soldiers looked on, many of them leaving the rowdy crowds to battle, while others tried to break up the mobs. The sirens of ambulances rushing to and from the area could be heard in all directions.
...Then there is the matter of paid thugs who seem to have taken part. Official government memos obtained by local newspapers in recent weeks indicate that there is a network of some 165,000 thugs who worked for the State Security apparatus and who have been used by agents of the former regime in various assaults over the past six months. Within army ranks, it is believed that destabilizing SCAF itself may be one of their targets; a plot orchestrated from within the existent and underground remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus. Indeed, amid the violence of Maspero, plainclothes state security agents and thugs seemed to have played more of a part then the soldiers themselves as the night wore on.
Above all, perhaps, was the role played by the state media, which actively incited violence against “armed Copts” and quickly adopted the narrative yhat the state has long fallen back on in such situations: namely, that there is always “foreign interference” or an “element” stirring trouble against the state. (During the revolution, it was State TV that claimed that protesters in Tahrir were being bribed to be there—LE50 a day and a KFC meal). In this instance, the Copts were the perfect scapegoat.