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Egyptian Military Targeted in Deadly Attacks as Islamists Mount Anti-Government Protests

At least one army officer was killed by gunmen in Cairo on Friday morning and around 90 Islamists arrested as regime opponents prepared for the largest demonstrations planned in months.

by John Beck and Jared Malsin
Nov 28 2014, 2:15pm

Image via Reuters

Three army officers and three protesters were killed in Egypt on Friday as Islamist plans for massive anti-government rallies fell apart in the face of a nationwide military deployment. 

Military sources said gunmen in a license plate-less vehicle shot and killed a brigadier general and injured two soldiers in Cairo on Friday, AFP reported. Officials told the Associated Press two other officers had also been killed.

Three people were also reportedly killed in protests in the eastern Cairo district of Matareya, though the deaths could not be independently confirmed. By mid-afternoon, the demonstrations largely remained restricted to outlying neighborhoods, while central Cairo was quiet, though tense, amid a heavy military and police presence.

An ultraconservative Salafi group had called for an uprising on Friday to topple the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the former military chief who let the ouster of elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The Islamist call for protests, articulated in a video released on YouTube, accused the current government of betraying Egypt's Muslim "identity." Since Morsi's removal, Egypt's security forces have killed more than a thousand people and detained thousands of others in a crackdown on Islamists and other political opponents.

In the northern port city of Alexandria, thousands of protesters took to the streets, many of them women, holding up four fingers in the symbol of the Rabaa massacre of August 2013, when security forces killed at least 800 Muslim Brotherhood supporters protesting the overthrow of their president Mohamed Morsi. Some reportedly chanted: "Sisi, you are Mubarak's dog. Execution is waiting for you," referring to the former general and now president Abdelfatteh el-Sisi who led the coup.

Protesters take to the streets in Alexandria. Video via YouTube/Alexandria Revolution.

The Salafi Front spearheaded the planned action, which it called the "Muslim Youth Uprising," and said protesters should brandish Qu'rans. The Islamist Anti Coup Alliance coalition urged Egyptians to join "a thundering week of revolutionary protests" in a statement, but warned its supporters not to get involved in violent clashes with security forces. Adding to the sense of anxiety, a court is expected on Saturday to issue a verdict in a re-trail of former President Hosni Mubarak on charges over the killings of more than 900 protesters.

But it was the first major protests planned in months that worried authorities, with parts of the city center on virtual military lockdown. In the neighborhood of Aguza, soldiers in a tan army personnel carrier trailed a convoy of military jeeps, sirens wailing, in a patrol along the Nile corniche. A military helicopter thumped overhead.

In Tahrir Square, ground zero of the 2011 uprising that ejected dictator Mubarak, several dozen anti-Islamist protesters waved Egyptian flags and held portraits of president Abdelfattah el-Sisi. Concertina wire partially closed each entrance to the square, while uniformed soldiers perched atop rows of APCs. One man wearing plainclothes and carrying a submachine gun against his chest led one group of young men down a side street.

"It's a festival!" said one man wearing glasses and a leather jacket, smiling as he strode toward the crowd. Another man, seated on the metal fence that rings the square muttered "The Brotherhood, they'll kill them."

Moments later a convoy of vehicles from the Central Security Forces, Egypt's riot police, rolled through Tahrir, prompting more cheers from the crowd.

In a shift from previous protests, the Islamists' rhetoric focused more on religion and religious identity. In the past, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies stressed their demand for Morsi's reinstatement.

Nevertheless Maha Azzam, head of opposition coalition the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, told VICE News that other anti-government protesters might take part too. "It was called for by a particular part of the opposition that is Salafi and is strongly religious, but that doesn't mean that that is the only part of the opposition. The call for Muslim youth to come out to the streets is very much part of the same sort of protests that have already been going on... so it doesn't mean that other groups won't be joining."

Troops were deployed throughout the country ahead of the demonstrations and the Interior Ministry threatened that dissent would be met with "lethal force." In a statement, the Interior Ministry also announced that police arrested 224 people throughout the country for shooting firearms, blocking roads, and other charges, while authorities defused 10 improvised explosive devices.

Azzam said that security forces could use the demonstrations as an excuse to hit opposition groups hard and make it clear that any form of protest would not be tolerated. However, she added that this would be a reflection of official concerns. "The security situation is very precarious and the regime is very uncertain of its own security, so will come out in huge numbers to suppress protest," she said. "The huge security presence is telling... it's not indicative of strength of the opposition, so much as the weakness of the regime."

The coalition leader said that she expected renewed calls for demonstrations to follow. Since Morsi's ouster, security forces have cracked down hard on supporters of the former president and his Muslim Brotherhood, killing hundreds and arresting tens of thousands.

The Egyptian cabinet approved a new terrorism bill on Wednesday with a wide ranging definition of "terrorist entities" including anyone who occupies private or public buildings or disrupts the work of authorities. Penalties had already been increased for terrorist acts in an April penal code amendment. In February the brotherhood were designated a terrorist organization.

Meanwhile, a juvenile court in Alexandria sentenced 78 children aged 13-17 to between two and five years in prison on Wednesday for being members of the Muslim Brotherhood and taking part in unauthorized protests, local media said. The detainees have complained of a number of violations whilst in custody.

An insurgency has raged in the Sinai peninsula since Morsi's ouster and security chiefs have been rattled by an upswell in attacks on police officers and troops that have killed scores in a matter of weeks. These include an assault on an Egyptian army checkpoint in late October that left 31 troops dead and prompted officials to declare a state of emergency in several parts of the Sinai. This was followed earlier this month by an unprecedented sea-borne attack on an Egyptian navy ship conducting a training mission off the coast of northeastern Damietta.

Egypt's most active extremist militant group, al-Qaeda-inspired Ansar Beit al Maqdis — which roughly translates to "Partisans of the Holy House," a reference to Jerusalem — claimed responsibility for the checkpoint attack as well as a number of others. The group also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on November 10 and urged attacks on authorities.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck