CAIRO – Thousands of Egyptians celebrated the third anniversary of their revolt against autocracy Saturday by holding a rally for the military leader who ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, while elsewhere at least 29 people died in clashes with security forces at anti-government protests.
Smaller demonstrations organized by Islamists and left-leaning activists held counterdemonstrations against the military takeover. But within as little as 15 minutes, riot police officers began firing tear-gas cannons and shooting guns into the air, swiftly dispersing the protests and leaving the day to the military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
The violence escalated as the day went on. The Way of the Revolution Front, a group opposed to the Islamists as well as the military takeover, urged its supporters to retreat from the streets in the face of what it called “the excessive force that police are using against whoever tries to express their opinion.”
By 10 p.m., health officials said the death toll from clashes with the police had reached 29. Most of those who died were killed in the Cairo area, security officials said, and more than 430 were arrested there.
In the canal city of Suez, a car bomb at a police camp wounded four officers, the latest in a campaign of attacks on security forces since the military takeover.
The violence Saturday came a day after four bombings around the capital killed at least six people and clashes with the police killed eight others. But the government appeared determined to prevent any of the protests or deaths from dimming the spectacle of the rally for el-Sissi, or the momentum of his presumed presidential campaign.
The enthusiasm of his supporters, however, also hinted at some of the outsize expectations he might face in office.
Hassan Shehab, 52, a shopkeeper carrying a poster of a son killed by security forces during the 2011 uprising, said he believed el-Sissi would “turn Egypt from a Third World country to a First World country” while bringing justice for the revolution’s “martyrs.”
“He will hold the police accountable and put them on trial, as soon as they get rid of the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood,” Shehab said.
The Brotherhood, an eight-decades-old missionary group, sponsored the most successful party in Egypt’s free elections in 2011 and 2012. Its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, became president and held that position until he was ousted by the military in July amid swelling street protests against him.
The military has been portraying the Brotherhood as a terrorist threat ever since. On Friday, government officials quickly blamed it for the day’s four bombings.
By Saturday, though, a young Islamist militant group calling itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdis had claimed responsibility for them on jihadi websites. A Sinai-based group whose name means Supporters of Jerusalem, the organization has claimed responsibility for a campaign of bombings and assassinations targeting security forces since the authorities began a deadly crackdown on the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and the Brotherhood are publicly critical of each other, but supporters of the new government insist they are one and the same.
“We tell our dear nation that these attacks were only the first drops of rain, so wait for what is coming up,” Ansar Beit al-Maqdis declared, according to the Associated Press. The group warned Egyptians “to stay away from the police and security headquarters,” adding, “We try to avoid inflicting harm to the Muslims.”
Many who remembered marching to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011, described a feeling of depression Saturday at the thought of the cheers for the new military leader on the hallowed ground of their revolt.
“I have never had so many of my friends in jail, arrested only for expressing their own opinions,” said Rami Shaath, 42, a left-leaning activist.
The Islamist militants and the authoritarian state “feed off of each other,” he said, the militants crusading against the corruption of the state and the state using the fear of terrorism to justify limiting freedoms. “But people will return to their senses and refuse the oppression and, if we are alive, we are here for them,” he said.
By Saturday evening, the left-leaning April 6 group was circulating pictures of the body of one of its members, Sayed Wizza, who it said had been shot by police at a demonstration in Cairo.
Hassam Badry, 53, an account manager, said he had come to attend the competing Brotherhood-organized anti-military rally. “I voted last year for a constitution, before that for parliament, for a president, and now my vote is gone,” he said. “That is what I want back, my vote, not Morsi.”