The third anniversary of Egypt's January 25th revolution was probably not one that its architects would have hoped for. Over two bloody, fractured days, more than 60 were killed and hundreds more injured, mostly at the hands of security forces. Over a thousand protesters, including activists who rose up in 2011, were arrested and detained as the military-backed administration further smothered all forms of dissent. Tahrir Square, meanwhile – a focal point of the popular revolt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak – was packed with military supporters clamouring for the return of strongman rule.
The weekend began with a massive car bomb blast outside Cairo's police HQ at 6.30AM Friday, killing four and wounding more than 70. Three smaller blasts followed elsewhere in the city, which saw three dead and several more injured. The al Qaeda-linked militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem) claimed responsibility for the attack, but the crowd gathered at the scene of the first attack chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans. Champions of Jerusalem have previously claimed responsibility for a December car bombing in the northern city of Mansoura that killed 16, but authorities blamed the Brotherhood and declared it a terrorist group.
Later that day, at least ten were reported dead in clashes between security forces and supporters of Egypt's Islamist former president and Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi – who was ousted by the military in a popular coup last year.
The anniversary itself began with military helicopters circling low over downtown Cairo and yet another bombing outside a police institute. This time, no injuries were reported. By 10AM, crowds were already beginning to gather in a heavily guarded Tahrir, lining up to pass the tanks, coils of barbed wire and strict checkpoints at the entrances.
On one side of the square, a stage playing nationalistic songs was set up and the crowd eagerly waved Egyptian flags, shook hands with soldiers and cheered every time a helicopter passed overhead. There was little sign of recognition for over 800 protesters who died during the 2011 uprising – who the crowds had supposedly gathered to commemorate. Instead, the meeting appeared to be about one man; Armed Forces Head General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who embodies the security establishment currently attempting to rule Egypt.
After deposing Morsi in July, many Egyptians believe General el-Sisi saved traditionally moderate Egypt from Islamist rule. Since then, the military-backed government has cracked down on the Brotherhood; hundreds have died in clashes with security forces and thousands of its leaders, members and supporters have been arrested. Yet this brutal treatment appears to have boosted Sisi's reputation. There is a widespread belief that he is the man to lead Egypt out of three years of political uncertainty and financial turmoil.
Sisi is already Egypt's de facto ruler, but has said he will only run for president if there is public demand. There certainly appears to be; scenes in Tahrir were reminiscent of an election rally. His face was everywhere – lanyards, posters, key rings, grossly deformed homemade masks – and in many different forms: Sisi with his trademark shades, Sisi in profile side by side with a lion, Sisi as part of a montage featuring two of Egypt's military heroes-turned-presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. On one particularly imaginative poster, he was depicted dressed in a bloodied butcher's outfit preparing to slaughter a sheep with Morsi's face. For many in the square, he was the reason for attendance. "Egyptians are here in Cairo, in Alexandria, in Port Said, everywhere for the revolution and for Sisi," said Mohammad, 23, a tourism student.
Sisi-mania also included hostility to anyone opposed to his leadership, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and anyone considered to be associated with them. Popular targets are the US, which many think backed Morsi's government for their own ends and Qatar, which gave financial support to Morsi's government. As a consequence, the Doha-based broadcaster Al Jazeera, which has been accused by the government of reporting false news, is now widely reviled. Authorities have raided its offices and a number of its journalists are still in detention.
Recent months have seen increased suspicion and harassment of foreign press at both a state and societal level, and working for the network is now seen by many as a sign of opposition to Egypt and its people. Several journalists working in Tahrir on Saturday reported being accused of working for Al Jazeera and mobbed or assaulted as a result.
Some in the mostly pro-military crowd were furious. "Down with the Qataris, and the Americans – death to them all, we will stomp them all under foot," said one woman who declined to give her name. "Death to Al Jazeera, too. Sisi – he is in here for us," she said, putting her fist to her heart, raising her head in the air and ululating joyfully.
Meanwhile, a number of anti-government marches were beginning in different parts of the city. At the nearby Journalists Syndicate, only a few hundred metres from Tahrir, demonstrators – many anti-government and anti-Islamist – were dispersed with tear gas, birdshot and (eyewitnesses say) live fire. Among them was Tarek Shalaby, a blogger and member of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialist group who says he was one of the first to occupy Tahrir in 2011, but also marched against Morsi's government on June 30th. He describes how police moved in on demonstrators. "Two or three blocks into the march, the police appeared and fired live ammunition everywhere. They were attacking us non-stop until they'd cleared the area completely and had us all scared shitless, running for our lives."
Elsewhere in the city, Morsi supporters clashed with security forces, with extensive use of live fire reported. Most of the casualties occurred in neighbourhoods with a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence.
Downtown Cairo hosted a number of impromptu pro-Sisi street parties held around makeshift soundsystems. Hostility against anti-government protesters, however, was also high. Shalaby describes picking up a Sisi poster as a cover to try to escape the area. It turned out to be a wise strategy, he says, because pro-military supporters blocked his way and said they were waiting to attack any Revolutionary Socialists and April 6 Youth Movement supporters that came their way. "That Sisi poster saved me," he says. "That's how sad things have become."
By evening, security forces and armed civilian mobs were chasing the panicked remnants of anti-government demonstrators around central Cairo. Police APCs sped through the streets, while tear gas was regularly fired and helicopters continued to circle low over the crowds. At one point, police officers advanced on protesters with their weapons raised, while a crowd of civilians behind them chanted "Sisi, Sisi!"
Clashes continued in other neighbourhoods late into the night, while festivities in Tahrir lasted until at least midnight. Throughout the day, 49 were killed and 247 injured according to the Ministry of Health, while an Interior Ministry statement reported 1,079 arrests. Among them were prominent activists and journalists.
On Sunday, interim president Adly Mansour announced that presidential elections would now be held before parliamentary elections, contrary to the "roadmap to democracy" established after Morsi's ousting. Sisi is widely expected to announce his candidacy soon.
The Anti-Coup Alliance, a coalition of Islamist factions led by the Muslim Brotherhood, called for 18 days of protest, mirroring the revolt that led to Mubarak's deposal. "The coalition further stresses that the current revolutionary wave will persist until victory, until it defeats the coup," it said in a statement vowing to "reclaim" the January 25th revolution.
For many of those who rebelled in 2011, however, revolutionary goals seem further away than ever. State security is as tight as its ever been, many are now jailed or dead and Egypt is once again left to wage war on itself.
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