CAIRO – With dancing horses and traditional folklore music, supporters the military-backed government celebrated and called on the army chief to run for president in rallies marking the third anniversary of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, as security forces firing tear gas battled rival demonstrations, both by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and by secular activists opposed to both camps.
The starkly contrasting scenes reflected the three years of turmoil that have split Egyptians into polarized camps since the revolt that began on Jan. 25, 2011, ousting autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak — followed by last summer’s millions-strong demonstrations against Mubarak’s elected successor, Morsi, that led to the coup removing him
Morsi’s supporters were using Saturday’s anniversary for building up new momentum in defiance to the military and its political transition plan, despite months of a fierce crackdown that has crippled their ranks and rising public resentment against the group.
Pro-military demonstrators, meanwhile, were turning out in state-backed rallies to show their support for army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the man who ousted Morsi and whom many of those in the rallies want to now run for president.
Security forces also moved to shut down rallies marking the anniversary by secular youth activists who led the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising and who are critical of both the Islamists and the military. A number of their most prominent figures have been in prison for months amid a campaign to silence even secular voices of dissent.
Police used tear gas to disperse one small gathering by activists in the Cairo district of Mohandessin, blogger Wael Khalil reported. One prominent activist, Nazli Hussein, was detained by police on the subway as she headed from her home to join one such rally downtown, said her mother, Ghada Shahbendar.
“The only thing allowed is el-Sissi revolutionaries,” Khalil said, with an ironic laugh. “This was supposed to be day to mark the revolution. . . . I don’t get it. Do they think that there will be working democracy this way?”
The rallies were taking place in an atmosphere of fear, a day after four bombs exploded in Cairo targeting police and killing six people, believed to be an escalation of a campaign of attacks by Islamic militants. Another 15 people were killed around the country Friday when Morsi’s supporters armed with gasoline bombs and firearms loaded with birdshot clashed with security forces. The Interior Ministry said 237 people were arrested during the protests.
In the northern Sinai Peninsula, where the military has been battling militants for months, an army helicopter crashed Saturday and its crew was missing, a military spokesman said. There was no immediate word on the cause or whether it had been shot down.
Islamists held protests in several neighborhoods of Cairo and in other cities, quickly turning into clashes with security forces. Protesters burned pictures of el-Sissi. Riot police fired tear gas and shot into the air, chasing protesters down side streets in Cairo. Two protesters were killed Saturday in the southern city of Minya in police clashes, a security official said.
One protest group, Students Against the Coup, led by supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, called for unity with other youth groups to “struggle against a fascist and oppressive military dictatorship.” Secular youth groups, which deeply opposed Morsi during his year as president, have shunned Islamist groups, however.
The pro-military rallies appeared carefully designed, with marches of demonstrators converging on several locations, particularly Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the symbolic heart of the 2011 uprising — and outside the presidential palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district.
The marchers waved Egyptian flags and touted posters, banners and badges with pictures of el-Sissi. A folklore band with dancers in colorful swirling skirts sang and danced their way across bridges over the Nile River into Tahrir, where a dancing horse performed.
“Come down (nominate yourself), oh el-Sissi,” a crowd in Tahrir chanted. Soldiers manning armored personnel carriers at the square’s entrances joined demonstrators in chanting, “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood.”
A military Chinook helicopter circled over Tahrir to cheers from the crowd. Huge loudspeakers blared pro-military songs in the streets.
A large motorcade of security vehicles paraded down a main boulevard in Alexandria. TVs showed celebrations— no more than hundreds yet in every location— in cities and squares around Egypt.
In midafternoon, the crowds from both the military and Islamist camps appeared relatively modest — though they often expand in the evening. Streets remained empty elsewhere in Cairo, on edge after the previous day’s bombings.
The al-Qaida-inspired group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or the Champions of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for Friday’s bombings, warned of more and told citizens to stay away from police stations.
“We tell our dear nation that these attacks were only the first drops of rain, so wait for what is coming,” read the statement, posted on militant websites.
The group, based in the Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility for one of the worst bombings that hit Egypt over the past months, including the assassination attempt of the Interior Minister in September and suicide bombing in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura that killed 16, mostly policemen. The group says it is avenging the killings of pro-Morsi supporters and military offensive in Sinai.
Early Saturday, a bomb exploded next to a police training institute in eastern Cairo, said Hani Abdel-Latif, a spokesman for Egypt’s Interior Ministry. He said it only damaged the facility’s walls and caused no casualties.
Ahmed Mahmoud, an engineering student living close by, said the blast shook his building and caused a brief power outage. Mahmoud said that angry residents quickly blamed the Brotherhood and vowed to attack any Islamist rallies in their neighborhood. “People were saying they will carry arms and kill all Muslim Brothers who dare to pass by this place,” he said.
The interim government has blamed the Brotherhood for violence after the coup and has designated it as a terrorist organization. The Brotherhood, which denounced violence in the 1970s, has denied any links to the terrorist attacks. However, the near daily protests carried out by the group since the July coup often devolve into violence.
In Sinai, a spokesman for Egypt’s military, Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, said an army helicopter crashed and its crew is missing in the northern peninsula early Saturday, where troops are battling Islamic militants. In a statement posted on his official Facebook page, he said the accident took place near the village of el-Kharouba. He provided no further details on the cause of the crash.
The Egyptian military has been waging operations for months in the northern Sinai to uproot Islamic militants who took hold of several towns and villages in the aftermath of 2011 uprising.