CAIRO — As Coptic Christians mourned the death of protesters slain by security forces, Egypt's military leaders faced unprecedented public anger Monday and growing doubt about their ability to oversee a promised transition to democracy.
Government officials vowed to investigate the causes of the worst violence since President Hosni Mubarak's ouster in February. But a growing body of evidence, including video footage and witness reports, suggest that military forces opened fire on unarmed protesters and deliberately drove hulking armored vehicles into crowds of civilians.
Muslims and Christians who attended a funeral for victims of Sunday night's crackdown chanted for the dismissal of the country's military chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
At least 26 people, mostly Christians, were killed and more than 300 wounded in the bloodshed, which marked a blow to the military's image as the protectors of the revolution, a status it earned by showing restraint in the face of a popular uprising.
Sunday's clashes, which raged over a large section of downtown Cairo, began when about 1,000 Christians tried to stage a peaceful sit-in outside the state television building to protest a recent attack on a church. The protesters said they were attacked by "thugs" with sticks, and the violence spiraled out of control after a speeding military vehicle jumped onto a sidewalk and crushed some Christians.
Since it assumed control of Egypt on Feb. 11, the military has been criticized for governing erratically and failing to uphold the democratic principles that fueled the revolution. Soldiers have been blamed for using excessive force in some instances and for failing to intervene in others.
"The army realizes that its forces committed a massacre against a religious minority," said Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "There is no telling what will follow."
Sunday's events and other recent steps by the military, including indecision on the electoral process, show its leaders are learning how to govern, said Adel Iskandar, an Egyptian-American who teaches communications and contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University: "A lot of people believe that this is the second phase of the revolution, and the next institution to be confronted is the military."
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said that the violence was a further setback to what the country's leaders had acknowledged has been a difficult transition to democracy. In a televised address late Sunday, he blamed the unrest on "hidden hands, domestic and foreign," resorting to a line Egypt's interim rulers have used in recent months to try to absolve themselves of the country's woes.
The military council said Monday it would not allow a rift to grow between the military and the people, and would form a committee to investigate and take "necessary precautions to stabilize security." It also promised to hand over power to a civilian government. The statement appeared to be a response to critics accusing the military of using violence as an excuse to prolong its rule.
Mubarak's regime protected Christian churches and clamped down on fundamental Islamist groups. Sunday's unrest and recent attacks on churches underscored Copts' vulnerability.