Street clashes and explosions erupted across Egypt on Saturday, the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the country’s longtime leader, as the resurgent military and its allies sought to suppress Islamist and leftist rivals.
Clashes nationwide killed at least 49 protesters, health officials said, with at least 247 injured in street unrest. Police fired tear gas, birdshot and live fire to disperse protests and marches by supporters of the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government and the left-leaning activists who led the January 25, 2011 revolt. The official news agency reported that at least 1,079 people were arrested, including antimilitary activists who attempted to enter Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the 2011 uprising.
Three explosions targeted security forces in Cairo and Suez, leaving 10 injured in the latest of a series of attacks on police and soldiers usually claimed by the al-Qaeda-inspired group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The group claimed responsibility for four explosions across the capital on Friday, which left six people dead and scores wounded.
The militant group also claimed in a statement it had downed an Egyptian military helicopter using a surface-to-air missile launcher in a crash that killed at least five soldiers but was officially described as an accident.
A popularly backed coup in July toppled the elected government of Mohamed Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, and ignited months of violence.
Witnesses on Saturday reported a ferocious response by security forces against anti-government protesters as well as western journalists, some of whom were attacked by mobs of military supporters or plainclothes enforcers with ties to the interior ministry. Images posted to social media showed bloodied limbs and several apparently dead protesters.
“The military and the security establishment are suffering from a major imagination crisis,” said Amro Ali, a researcher specialising in Egyptian urban politics at the University of Sydney. “They cannot treat or see Egypt in any other way than with an iron grip. They really hate any symbols of the revolution.”
Meanwhile, the security forces encouraged supporters of the military and police to flood Tahrir, where they held up Egyptian flags and waved posters of the defence minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who toppled the Brotherhood’s elected government, installed an interim administration and is believed to be preparing a presidential run.
Government and private television channels owned by well-connected businesspeople censored scenes of clashes, airing only footage of pro-Sisi rallies. In one scene broadcast on the pro-military ONTV, demonstrators danced around a large poster of Gen Sisi placed on the ground, occasionally dropping on their knees to kiss his image.
“The army, the police and the people are one hand,” tens of thousands of regime supporters chanted in Tahrir Square.
Outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis, authorities set up a stage where performers sang nationalistic anthems and put on folkloric dances, as fireworks lit up the night sky. Military helicopters swooped low over Tahrir Square, where protesters cheered in support of the armed forces and Gen Sisi.
“Among ordinary Egyptians, there is still a belief that one man will bring them salvation,” said Mr Ali.
But beyond tightly controlled official celebrations, fear and chaos dominated. Security forces equipped with anti-riot gear, armoured vehicles and tear-gas canister launchers quickly dispersed gathering protests in support of the deposed Islamist government as well as those by leftists against the military, including at their traditional gathering point near the Mostafa Mahmoud mosque in western Cairo.
In front of the journalists’ syndicate in central Cairo, young activists who had been the original impetus for the 2011 revolt complained that the armed forces had stolen their revolution.
“They killed the revolution; they killed the revolutionaries,” they chanted.
“We’re under military rule,” said Amr Ebrahim, a 20-year-old student of architecture. “It’s worse now than under Mubarak. The security forces are being more violent than ever before. Sisi is a murderer.”
Many of the activists who led the January 25 revolution expressed despair. Key leaders of that revolt, including Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher, have been imprisoned on accusations of undermining national security.
Some activists took to social media to urge others to stay at home rather than risk imprisonment or physical injury on Saturday. “We are losing more revolutionaries than we are capable of protecting,” activist Gigi Ibrahim wrote on Facebook, urging her counterparts to face up to their defeat.
However, Khaled Dawoud, a former leader of the liberal Dostour party, joined the protest at the journalists’ syndicate.
He took part in the 2011 revolution and supported the initial July coup, only to break from the interim government once it began condoning repression against Brotherhood supporters.
“These young people have always been consistent in what they’ve demanded,” he said. “As long as young people are out here and continuing to make themselves heard, the revolution is not lost.”
Get alerts on World when a new story is published