Twenty-nine people were killed during anti-government marches in Egypt on Saturday according to the country's health ministry, underlining Egypt's volatile political fissures three years after the revolution began which swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Security forces lobbed teargas and some fired automatic weapons in the air to try to prevent demonstrators opposed to the government reaching Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the 18-day uprising that began Jan. 25, 2011 and led to the toppling of the former air force commander.
As police tried to calm Cairo's politically charged streets, a car bomb exploded near a police camp in the Egyptian city of Suez, security sources said.
The blast, which was followed by a fierce exchange of gunfire, suggested the authorities could be locked in a long-term battle with insurgents who are gaining momentum.
But the growing violence has not dented the popularity of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose ouster of Islamist Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, plunged the country into turmoil.
Instead of commemorating the beginning of the end to Mubarak's reign, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir to pledge their support for Sisi in an event stage-managed by the state.
The core demands of the 2011 revolt — freedom and social justice —could only be heard in protests outside Tahrir, which were quickly muzzled by security forces.
The Sisi mania underscored the prevailing desire for a decisive military man Egyptians can count on to stabilize Egypt.
But an end to street violence seemed nowhere in sight. Not far from Tahrir, police in black uniforms clutching assault rifles fired tear gas canisters in a clampdown on anti-government protesters lasting for about two hours.
Nine protesters were killed in different parts of the capital, where armored personnel carriers were deployed to try and keep order, and anyone entering Tahrir had to pass through metal detectors.
In the southern town of Minya, two people were killed in clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces, said Brigadier General Hisham Nasr, director of criminal investigations in the regional police department.
A woman was killed in Egypt's second city of Alexandria during clashes between supporters of Morsi and security forces. Most of those killed were shot, security sources said.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the rest of those killed Saturday was not immediately clear.
The violence prompted one alliance of liberals to call on their members to withdraw from the streets.
But others gathered in central Cairo after nightfall to call for an end to the army-backed government. "Down with military rule," they chanted.
Al Jazeera and Reuters
54 Dead in an Egypt Polarized between pro-Military, anti-Coup on Revolution Anniversary
In the iconic Tahrir Square downtown, thousands of supporters of the military coup of July 3, 2013, gathered for a big party. People never used to dance to patriotic songs, but now it is becoming customary. Footage at one point showed a stage with Nubian folk dancers performing in a mixed troupe that included men and a woman dancer. That performance would have been frowned on by the Muslim Brotherhood government that was in power a year ago, and which had pressured Cairo’s five star hotels to stop belly dancing performances at their night clubs. The not so subtle message was that the coup government is pushing back against the puritanical policies of the Brotherhood, which had threatened personal liberties and artistic expression (the Cairo Opera performers went on strike last spring over such issues).
Some in Tahrir are alleged to have chanted “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” blaming the fundamentalist organization for Friday’s bombings.
The Tahrir crowd wants Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president. This move is extremely problematic. Al-Sisi is likely behind many of the paranoid and horrific human rights violations of the past 7 months. He gives the impression of being both a narcissist and a sociopath, and the Arab world has had enough such leaders. Pakistan adopted a law that no military officer could serve as president unless he had been out of uniform for at least two years prior to being sworn in, and Egypt should think seriously about a similar ban.
Pro-Sisi rallies were also held in central squares in provincial cities.
Members of the April 6 Youth, a leftist organization key to the 2011 revolution, tried to march to Tahrir Square, but were stopped by police and some were arrested. One of their founders, Ahmad Maher, has been sentenced to 3 years hard labor for participating in an unlicensed protest last fall. They also demonstrated in Mohandiseen in west Cairo, as part of a leftist coalition called the “Revolutionary Road Front.” They reject military rule but also reject the legitimacy of the Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi, who was deposed last summer after massive popular demonstrations against him.
Outside Tahrir Square, in provincial towns and cities, thousands of Muslim fundamentalist protesters marked the anniversary by coming into the streets and chanting against the government. The coup government of Prime Minister Hazem Biblawi has tried to outlaw unlicensed protests. Thus, police were ordered to attack the demonstrators with tear gas and birdshot and to arrest many of them. Sometimes they appear to have used live ammunition on the crowds, accounting for at least 54 deaths.
In a return to days of journalistic shame, al-Ahram, Egypt’s newspaper of record, did not mention the deaths in its front page headline about the day’s events.
Some 176 were wounded in clashes with other protesters or with police. In addition, police made over 1000 arrests of demonstrators throughout the country, and arrested another 700 or so for possession of Molotov cocktails or firearms.
On Friday Cairo had been shaken by several bombings, one of them massive. The truck bomb targeted the Directorate of Security.
On Saturday there were two more bombings. One was at Police Academy Central in Cairo, badly injuring one man. There was another bombing, in Suez, on Saturday, which targeted the base of security police and left 16 wounded. The bombings on Friday were claimed by the shadowy Helpers of the House of Jerusalem, which is allegedly based in the lawless Sinai Peninsula and allied with Hamas in Gaza. But some Egyptian analysts say that it is a front, not a real organization, for the more militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
So Egypt was three countries on Saturday. There was the praetorian Republic of al-Sisi in Tahrir, there were the leftist Revolutionary Road Front and April 6 Youth at Muhammad Mahmoud and Mohandiseen, and there was the Muslim Brotherhood in Asyut and El Minya and elsewhere in provincial depot towns. Whereas all three forces had united in February of 2011 to depose Mubarak, now the three are all opposed to one another and their exclusionary politics has brought the country to the brink of chaos.
It is a sad anniversary. But it isn’t the last anniversary, and the youth who revolted in 2011 won’t really come to political power for another 20 or 30 years. The Egyptian Millennials have different values on the whole than Baby Boomers like the fundamentalist Morsi or than Gen X figures like al-Sisi. It is unlikely that we have heard the last of those demands for personal dignity and social justice.