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Pro-military marchers dance in streets

In large, state-backed rallies complete with dancing horses and traditional music, military supporters celebrated the anniversary of Egypt's 2011 uprising Saturday, calling for the army chief to run for president. At the same time, security forces cracked down on rival demonstrations by Islamist supporters of the ousted president — and by secular activists critical of both camps.

The starkly contrasting scenes reflected the three years of turmoil that have split Egyptians into polarized camps since the revolt that began on Jan. 25, 2011, ousting autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak — followed by last summer's millions-strong demonstrations against Mubarak's elected successor, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, that led to the coup removing him.

Morsi's supporters were using Saturday's anniversary to build new momentum in defiance to the military and its political transition plan, despite being hit by a crippling police crackdown and rising public resentment against the group. At least eight people were killed around the country as police descended on their protests, firing tear gas and shooting in the air.

Violence was heaviest in the provinces. A car bomb exploded outside a security camp in the city of Suez, where gunmen clashed with police, firing at some from nearby rooftops, witnesses said. Nine civilians were wounded in the bombing.

In neighbouring Ismailiya city, pitched street battles between protesters and security forces were punctured by chants of "down with military rule." In Alexandria, a woman protester was shot and killed during clashes between police and Morsi supporters.

In a defiant statement amid the clashes, the Brotherhood vowed not to leave the streets "until it fully regains its rights and breaks the coup and puts the killers on trial."

The clashes competed with scenes of celebration in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other major squares in provincial capitals.

Thousands of pro-military demonstrators turned out in Cairo's Tahrir Square in rallies to show their support for army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the man who ousted Morsi and whom many of those in the rallies want to now run for president in elections expected by the summer.

Long queues of demonstrators lined up to enter the tightly secured-square through metal detectors. Barbed wire encircled the square, and soldiers on armoured vehicles guarded the entrances. Low-flying military helicopters showered the crowd with small flags and gift coupons to buy refrigerators, heaters, blankets and home appliances.

"Come down (nominate yourself), el-Sissi," the crowd chanted. Soldiers guarding the square joined them in chanting, "The people want the execution of the Brotherhood."

Men carried posters of el-Sissi dressed in civilian clothes. Others raised paper masks with el-Sissi's picture as patriotic songs blasted from a central stage in the square's heart. A folklore band with dancers in colorful swirling skirts sang and danced their way across bridges over the Nile River into Tahrir, where a dancing horse performed.

"El-Sissi saved the nation. It was up in the air like this helicopter and he carried it to safety," said Mervat Khalifa, 62, sitting on the sidewalk and waving to a helicopter overhead.

Their rallies showed a ferociously anti-Islamist tone— translating into fury at anyone believed to be critical of the post-coup leadership. In Tahrir, a crowd was seen beating and shoving a woman in a conservative headscarf, believing she was a Brotherhood sympathizer, and driving her out of the square.

They also turned on journalists. More than a dozen journalists were beaten by the demonstrators, or detained by police for protection from angry crowds. Demonstrators chased one Egyptian female journalist, mistakenly believing her to work for Al-Jazeera TV — seen as pro-Brotherhood. They pulled her hair and tried to strangle her with a scarf until police took her into a building for protection.

Security forces also moved to shut down rallies marking the anniversary by secular youth activists who led the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising and who are critical of both the Islamists and the military. A number of their most prominent figures have been in prison for months amid a campaign to silence even secular voices of dissent.

One prominent activist, Nazli Hussein, was detained by police on the subway as she headed from her home to join one such rally downtown, her mother, Ghada Shahbendar said. Hussein's lawyer, Amr Imam, said that when he went to see her at the police station, a police shoved him, pointed his rifle at him and warned him he had 10 seconds to leave or he'd shoot.

Police used tear gas to disperse one small gathering by secular activists in the Cairo district of Mohandessin, beating and kicking at least one of them, several participants said.

"The only thing allowed is el-Sissi revolutionaries," one of the activists, blogger Wael Khalil, said with an ironic laugh. "This was supposed to be day to mark the revolution ... I don't get it. Do they think that there will be working democracy this way?"

The days' rallies are taking place in an atmosphere of fear, a day after four bombs exploded in Cairo targeting police and killing six people, believed to be an escalation of a campaign of attacks by Islamic militants. Another 15 people were killed around the country Friday when Morsi's supporters armed with gasoline bombs and firearms loaded with birdshot clashed with security forces. The Interior Ministry said that 237 people were arrested during the protests.

In the northern Sinai Peninsula, where the military has been battling militants for months, an army helicopter crashed Saturday and its crew was missing, a military spokesman said. There was no immediate word on the cause or whether it had been shot down.

The al-Qaida-inspired group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or the Champions of Jerusalem, claimed responsibility for Friday's bombings, warned of more and told citizens to stay away from police stations.

"We tell our dear nation that these attacks were only the first drops of rain, so wait for what is coming," read the statement, posted on militant websites.

The group, based in Sinai peninsula, claimed responsibility for one of the worst bombings that hit Egypt over the past months, including the assassination attempt of the Interior Minister in September and suicide bombing in Nile Delta city in Mansoura killing 16 mostly policemen. The group says it is avenging the killings of pro-Morsi supporters and military offensive in Sinai.

The government has accused the Brotherhood of ultimately being behind the militant violence and declared the group a terrorist organization. It has produced no proof publicly and the group says the accusation is baseless. But pro-government media — which means most Egyptian TV and newspapers — tout the link as a given, and broad sector of the public are convinced, noting the Brotherhood's alliances with radicals while Morsi was in office, street violence by his supporters during and after his rule and the militants' own pronouncements that they are retaliating for his ouster.

Early Saturday, a bomb exploded next to a police training institute in eastern Cairo, said Hani Abdel-Latif, a spokesman for Egypt's Interior Ministry. He said it only damaged the facility's walls and caused no casualties.

Ahmed Mahmoud, an engineering student living nearby, said angry residents quickly blamed the Brotherhood.

"People were saying they will carry arms and kill all Muslim Brothers who dare to pass by," he said.

Islamists held protests in several neighbourhoods of Cairo and in other cities, quickly turning into clashes with security forces. Protesters burned pictures of el-Sissi. Riot police fired tear gas and shot into the air, chasing protesters down side streets in Cairo.

Two protesters were killed in the southern city of Minya and two others in the greater Cairo area in police clashes, security officials said.

In its statement, the Brotherhood appealed to secular youth groups to unite with it in protests.

"Free and creative revolutionaries ... keep the ember of your revolution alive, unite on the goals of the revolution," it said. "Pay no mind to the empty threats of the coupists, and their attempt to divide you."

Secular youth groups, however, have shunned the Islamists, whom they equally accuse of undermining the 2011 uprising's democracy goals while in power. The groups later issued an appeal to their supporters to withdraw from street protests because of "excessive violence" by security forces.

 

The Canadian Press

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