Three years after the start of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, thousands of Egyptians rallied in Cairo’s Tahrir Square Saturday calling for another military man to become their leader.
The anniversary rallies came against the backdrop of deadly Cairo bombings in a country deeply polarised between supporters and opponents of Mubarak’s successor, the deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
At least 29 people were killed in clashes across Egypt during Saturday’s rival rallies.
Families entered the square — epicentre of the uprising that began on January 25, 2011 and toppled Mubarak 18 days later — chanting slogans backing General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military chief who overthrew Morsi in July.
Many demonstrators openly called for Muslim Brotherhood members to be killed, underscoring the bitter polarisation since the 2011 revolt which saw Egyptians of all political persuasions unite to demand change.
“I am here to support our army and police,” said Syed Ahmed Abdallah in Tahrir, holding a Koran in one hand and a wooden cross in the other as he balanced a small plastic model of a military tank on his head.
“I will do whatever I can to support them,” Abdallah said, before chanting “Kill the Muslim Brotherhood” as the crowds behind him whistled and chanted “Sisi, Sisi!”
A short drive away, police fired tear gas at protesters in Mustafa Mahmud Square during a demonstration against the military-installed government.
Sisi is widely seen as a strongman who can restore order and combat the militancy that has rocked Egypt since the ouster of Morsi.
The military-installed authorities blame the violence on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
On Friday, Cairo was hit by four bomb attacks, including a huge explosion targeting the police headquarters of the capital.
Wave of militant nationalism
The Muslim Brotherhood — which renounced violence decades ago and won a series of elections after Mubarak’s overthrow — has condemned the bombings and insisted it is committed to peaceful protest.
The authorities have nevertheless launched a sweeping crackdown, arresting thousands of Islamists, including virtually all of the Brotherhood’s top leadership. More than 1,000 people, mainly Islamists, have been killed in street clashes since July.
Popular anger with the Brotherhood grew throughout Morsi’s divisive year in power, and many Egyptians have cheered on the crackdown amid a wave of militant nationalism.
In Tahrir on Saturday a festive atmosphere prevailed, as jubilant Egyptians waved flags and posters of Sisi, while a military helicopter circled overhead.
“People want the death of the Brotherhood,” chanted many as they poured into the square, entering in queues through specially installed metal detectors after being frisked by police.
In 2011 protesters had directed their fury at Mubarak’s feared police, who were widely accused of corruption and brutality.
But on Saturday a police band played patriotic songs as onlookers joined in the singing and dancing and several people took their pictures with police officers, soldiers and tanks.
A group of journalists including an AFP cameraman were taken in a helicopter to film the celebrations at Tahrir Square, and an officer on board threw Egyptian flags to the crowds below.
Several dance troupes performed on a stage put up in the square for the anniversary, as revellers flashed beams from green laser pens that were a distinctive feature of protests against Mubarak and later against Morsi.
The protesters in Mustafa Mahmud Square, however, said their revolution would continue.
“The revolution of the 25th of January continues, to liberate Egypt from the military,” said Mamduh Mohammed, a doctor.
“The people want the fall of the regime,” protesters there shouted, reprising the key refrain of the Arab Spring.
Their call for change was met with clouds of tear gas, and they scattered into nearby streets.