CAIRO -- A series of bloody clashes in recent days have heightened fears in Egypt that thugs loyal to Hosni Mubarak's former regime are fanning tensions in a bid to undermine political reforms promised by the country's military-led government.
Fierce overnight clashes between Christians and Muslims left 13 people dead and 140 wounded in a Cairo suburb, state media said Wednesday, while in a separate incident, bands of thugs stormed into downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, where they ripped down pro-reform activists' tents and defaced a memorial to Egyptians who were killed in the revolution, witnesses said.
Earlier this week, several female protesters were groped and roughed up when mobs descended on a peaceful rally marking International Women's Day.
Egyptian soldiers present in Tahrir Square did little to stop Wednesday's attacks, and they deleted photos taken by journalists who witnessed the chaos.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military committee that now governs Egypt, said it would "stand firm against plans for a counter-revolution," according to the state news agency, MENA. It also announced that it had approved a draft law that would authorize the death penalty for "criminal acts of thuggery" that result in someone's death. The new law is designed to crack down on crimes such as intimidation, thuggery and disturbing the peace, according to state television.
The government "is fully committed to the interests of the people and to implementing the goals of the revolution," news agencies quoted MENA as saying.
Meanwhile, Coptic Christians called for the government to investigate the sudden spasm of sectarian violence, which some Christian leaders have blamed on disgruntled Mubarak-era security officers.
Muslims and Copts stood in solidarity during the 18-day uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak's presidency and even held several interfaith worship ceremonies in Tahrir Square. But old fissures resurfaced this week after a church fire and publication of leaked security files that suggest state involvement in past attacks on Egypt's Christian minority, including a bloody New Year's Day bombing in Alexandria that killed 21.
Muslim clerics and Christian priests plan a rally Friday in hopes of easing tensions in the village of Etfeah, where the torching of a church set off four days of protests.
Armed mobs attacked a related Christian demonstration on the outskirts of Cairo late Tuesday, and fighting raged for hours as the groups hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at one another while blocking a main highway into the capital. Cars that drove near the melee were set upon by mobs that smashed windshields.
Hanan Fikry, a journalist at a weekly Coptic newspaper, said she suspects the work of "counter-revolutionary forces" loyal to Mr. Mubarak's former security chiefs. She said mob attacks of the past week signaled the work of thugs, formerly on the government payroll, who are now acting as "mercenaries" to stop Egypt's political reforms.
The main concern, Ms. Fikry said, is that the escalating violence could force a delay in the military's transfer of authority to a new civilian government.
"There's an old saying that goes, 'If you want to destroy Egypt, hit the Nile or cause sectarian strife,' " Ms. Fikry said. "This is an internal, despicable movement trying to strike the country from within. It's the remnants of the former government, and they're trying to kill the Jan. 25 revolution, targeting the vulnerabilities that already exist among Egyptians."
Georgette Qilini, a Copt who served in the Egyptian parliament, said she, too, feared that organized forces were working to overturn the reform movement. "What's happening in the country is not only against the Copts, it's against everyone," she said. "I told everyone this is what I think. I even told the Muslim Brotherhood that it's planned, and against them as well."
Ms. Qilini also criticized state media, saying their reports have contributed to the sense of unease by at first downplaying the violence, then later disseminating full accounts of what had taken place.
At least some of those killed overnight died of gunshot wounds, an oddity in a society where carrying a firearm is relatively uncommon.