Seven people were killed during anti-government marches on Saturday while thousands rallied in support of the army-led authorities, underlining Egypt’s volatile political fissures three years after the fall of autocrat president Hosni Mubarak.
Security forces lobbed teargas and fired in the air to try to prevent demonstrators opposed to the government from reaching Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the 2011 uprising that toppled the former air force commander.
As police tried to calm Cairo’s politically-charged streets, a car bomb exploded near a police camp in the Egyptian city of Suez, security sources said.
The blast, which was followed by a fierce exchange of gunfire, suggested that Islamist militant opponents of Sisi were intensifying an insurgency. But the growing violence has not dented the general’s popularity.
Instead of commemorating Mubarak’s overthrow, a large number of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir for the day to pledge their support for the army chief who ousted the country’s first freely-elected president last year.
The chanting for c underscored the prevailing desire for a decisive military man they count on to end the political turmoil that has gripped Egypt since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution and crippled the economy.
But an end to street violence seemed nowhere in sight. Not far from Tahrir, police in black uniforms clutching assault rifles fired tear gas canisters in a clampdown on anti-government protesters lasting for about two hours.
Four protesters were killed in different parts of the capital, where armoured personnel carriers were deployed to try and keep order, and anyone entering Tahrir had to pass through a metal detector.
In the southern town of Minya, two people were killed in clashes between Mursi supporters and security forces, said Brigadier General Hisham Nasr, director of criminal investigations in the regional police department.
A woman was killed in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria during clashes between supporters of Mursi and security forces.
The pressure prompted one alliance of liberals to call on their members to withdraw from the streets.
Sisi toppled President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July after mass protests against what critics called his mismanagement and increasingly arbitrary rule, triggering a confrontation with the veteran Islamist movement that has hit investment and tourism hard.
SISI TIPPED TO RUN FOR, WIN PRESIDENCY
The general, who served as head of military intelligence under Mubarak, is expected to announce his candidacy for the presidency soon and likely to win by a landslide in elections, expected within six months.
Several leading politicians have indicated they would not run for president if Sisi does, highlighting his dominance and the barren political landscape that has emerged since Mubarak’s fall. The most vocal critics of the new order – the Brotherhood – have been driven underground.
The army congratulated Egyptians on the anniversary of the 2011 uprising and said it would help people build on the gains of what it calls the June 30 Revolution, a reference to the street unrest that prompted the army to oust Mursi.
Such messages have wide appeal for people like Shadia Mohamed Ahmed, a veiled middle-aged woman holding a poster of Sisi in Tahrir. She said “criminals” who commit violent acts against Egypt should be “executed in a public square.”
The crowd around her called for the execution of Brotherhood members.
Tensions have been smouldering anew since a wave of deadly bombings killed six people in Cairo on Friday. An al Qaeda-inspired group, based in the lawless Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility, according to the SITE monitoring organisation.
In an audio message posted on militant websites, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri called on Egyptian Muslims to focus on fighting what he called “an Americanised coup” staged by Sisi instead of battling the country’s minority Christians.
The leader of the Coptic Christian church backed Sisi’s military takeover.
Early on Saturday a bomb exploded near a Cairo police academy. No one was hurt, said the Interior Ministry.
In Tahrir, the mood felt more like a campaign rally for Sisi than a commemoration of the 18-day revolt that Egyptians at the time hoped would bring democratic, civilian government to the Arab world’s most populous country.
Huge banners, posters and T-shirts displayed images of Sisi in his trademark dark sunglasses at Saturday’s rally. Several hundred people chanted slogans in support of the general.
TEAR GAS AND BIRDSHOT
Some didn’t have the chance to express their views. Police fired live rounds in the air to disperse about 1,000 anti-government protesters in Cairo’s Mohandiseen district and at two other marches in downtown.
Hisham Sadiq, a university student, said he was protesting against “military rule and the thugs of the Interior Ministry”.
At one rally, the crowd yelled “the people want the downfall of the regime!” – a common chant during the 18-day revolt that ousted Mubarak – before running from tear gas.
Dozens of anti-government protesters were arrested in Egypt’s second city Alexandria, security sources said.
When he removed Mursi, Sisi promised a political roadmap that would lead to free and fair elections.
But the Muslim Brotherhood says Sisi and his allies in the government have blood on their hands and accuse them of undermining democratic gains made since Mubarak’s downfall.
Security forces have killed up to 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and put the movement’s top leaders in jail. The Brotherhood, which renounced violence in the 1970s, has been declared a terrorist group.
But the tough measures have failed to stabilise Egypt, which is of great strategic importance because of its peace treaty with Israel and control over the Suez Canal.
Islamist militants based in the Sinai Peninsula have stepped up attacks against security forces since Sisi toppled Mursi. Hundreds have been killed.
The security crackdown has been extended to secular-minded liberals, including ones who played a key role in the 2011 uprising. Human rights groups have accused the Egyptian authorities of quashing dissent and using excessive force, calling state violence since Mursi’s ouster unprecedented.
Still, many Egyptians choose to look the other way and extend their full support to Sisi. “We are here to support Sisi,” said a man in Tahrir who only gave his first name, Mahmoud. “Sisi is going to save the country,” said his wife.