CAIRO – Officially sanctioned rallies to mark Saturday’s third anniversary of Egypt’s democratic uprising brought highly choreographed displays of fervent nationalism, while security forces meted out harsh punishment to Islamist and secular opponents of the military-backed government. By day’s end, at least 29 people died, by the authorities’ count, with hundreds more arrested and scores injured.
Police forcefully dispersed separate demonstrations staged by backers of deposed president Mohammed Morsi and by secularists who had helped drive the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak. Breaking up gatherings in Cairo and elsewhere, police wielded tear gas, birdshot, fists and clubs, and in some cases, lethal force. Vigilantes joined in the attacks on protesters.
A day after four explosions jolted the capital city, killing six people, many were anxious about going out into the streets, and early crowds were thin in Cairo and elsewhere. But crowds swelled as the day went on, and grew enormous at nightfall.
One small early-morning explosion went off near a police training center in Cairo, but caused no serious injuries or damage. A militant group that until recently has been active mainly in the Sinai peninsula – Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem – claimed responsibility for the Cairo attacks on Friday.
In tightly guarded Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the anti-Mubarak uprising, the anniversary brought elaborate shows of adulation for Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief who is being urged by many to run for president. He led the popularly supported coup that deposed Morsi in July.
Euphoric demonstrators in the square donned Sissi masks and waved Sissi banners while helicopters roared overhead. Women shrilly ululated as they brandished portraits of the general in his trademark sunglasses.
Many attending the Tahrir celebrations saw the anniversary as a chance to vent renewed anger at the autocratic Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood and express support for the interim government, which has promised to hold presidential and parliamentary elections this year.
“The Brotherhood and their associates can try to spread fear all they want,” said Mohamed Salem, a middle-aged insurance company worker on his way to Tahrir Square. “They can try to bomb the whole country, but that will not scare us.”
Close to the square and in several other districts of Cairo, police moved against marches by secularists opposed to both Morsi and Sissi. Authorities made dozens of arrests and beat those they collared in chaotic chases down side streets. One member of the April 6 Youth Movement, several of whose best-known leaders have been jailed, was shot dead in a clash in central Cairo, associates reported.
Pro-Morsi supporters also came in for rough treatment at the hands of police across the country. A day earlier, 14 supporters of the deposed leader died in clashes with security forces. Morsi backers were thought to account for the bulk of Saturday’s casualties as well.
On Thursday, the rights group Amnesty International said 1,400 people had died in political violence during the military-backed government’s seven months in power, most of them supporters of Morsi. The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization, and thousands of its followers are in jail.
The interim government spent its initial months in power cracking down hard on the Brotherhood, but in recent months it has broadened its campaign to other opponents, taking aim at academics, filmmakers, bloggers, journalists and activists. Despite approval earlier this month of a constitution enhancing Egyptians’ personal freedoms, the government has used a variety of curbs on freedom of expression and assembly to quell dissent.
With the anniversary behind it, the interim government is expected in coming days to disclose the timetable for presidential and parliamentary elections. President Adly Mansour was to make a nationally televised address on Sunday, with an announcement possible then.
Sissi would then need to declare his candidacy or announce his intention to stay in his current military post. The newly approved constitution gives the military greater independence from civilian oversight, so the general might opt to stay in his position as army chief, from which he has effectively ruled the country since the coup.
Some high-profile legal proceedings have been on hold for most of this month, during the constitutional referendum and the days leading up to the anniversary. Morsi, who is facing four separate legal proceedings, is expected back in court this week.
The former president is facing capital charges, including incitement to murder and espionage, together with offenses like stealing poultry – an indictment ridiculed by his supporters.