At least 51 killed in Egyptian clashes on holiday honoring army

Supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi run for cover from tear gas during clashes with riot police in downtown Cairo.
(Ahmed Gamel / AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — Choking clouds of tear gas filled the air and gunshots rang out Sunday as supporters and opponents of Egypt’s military-backed government fought running street battles on a major holiday paying homage to the army. At least 51 people were reported killed, more than 200 injured and hundreds arrested in an hours-long melee that underscored anew the country’s deep political divisions.

Egyptians were urged by their interim government to turn out en masse to commemorate the start of the 1973 war against Israel, transforming a day of celebrations into a highly choreographed show of public support for the country’s most powerful man, Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi. But Islamist protesters surged into the streets as well, igniting chaotic fighting that continued into the night.

Oct. 6 is celebrated every year as a national holiday, but this year it carried special resonance. The interim government, in power for three months, was eager to show the world that ordinary Egyptians solidly backed the army’s July overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and the continuing crackdown against his Muslim Brotherhood.


Fighter jets streaked overhead, horns honked, patriotic songs blared in streets and squares, schoolchildren chanted pro-military slogans, and flag vendors rejoiced at brisk sales as Egyptians hailed the opening salvo of the 1973 war — a surprise attack against Israel on the eve of the most solemn Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur.

In the initial stages of that conflict, Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and staged a push into Sinai. Israel’s military eventually managed to reverse those gains, and the war in effect ended in a stalemate, though the latter part of the battle has been airbrushed from Egypt’s national narrative and the war is portrayed as a triumph.

In their early hours, Sunday’s pro-army rallies across central Cairo had the ambience of a raucous street fair, albeit one watched over by ubiquitous troops and tanks. But by midday, Morsi supporters were gathering near several key Cairo mosques, and their numbers swelled throughout the afternoon. By dusk, violent clashes had broken out in several locales, with protesters setting tires ablaze, security forces firing tear gas and live ammunition and helicopters circling overhead.

Government supporters joined police and soldiers in driving back the Islamists, often hurling angry abuse. The pro-Morsi forces chanted anti-police and anti-army slogans, and brandished the four-fingered symbol of the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, where hundreds of Brotherhood backers died when security forces broke up protest camps in mid-August.

The toll rose steadily through the evening hours, with the Health Ministry reporting at least 51 deaths, most of them in the capital. About 240 people were reported injured. Other deaths were reported in the Nile Valley town of Dalga, south of Cairo, and in the town of El Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, where a police officer was reported fatally shot.

Across Cairo, the military-sanctioned commemorations had the flavor of a campaign rally for Sisi, the army chief, whose followers are urging him to run for president. Posters of the general’s stern visage fluttered everywhere, and marchers were fervent in their expressions of support.

“We are rejoicing at the victory of ’73, but also supporting the army today, because they stood by the people and carried out the people’s wishes,” said Mohammed Gamal, a mustachioed 26-year-old pharmaceutical company employee. Television commentators compared the Suez crossing to the current fight to eradicate the Brotherhood.

The months since Morsi’s ouster have seen a series of increasingly authoritarian measures by the interim government that succeeded him. A nationwide state of emergency remains in effect, giving the authorities sweeping powers to suppress dissent. Human rights groups say arbitrary detention is on the rise, together with the use of military courts to try civilians. Last week, it became an offense punishable by law to insult Egypt’s flag or national anthem.

At the same time, the government has become extremely sensitive about its public image overseas. Hours before the start of Sunday’s military celebrations, the government abruptly and without explanation freed two Canadians — filmmaker John Greyson and physician Tarek Loubani — who had been detained for seven weeks without charges, held in what they described in a jailhouse letter as harsh conditions.

Throughout the day Sunday, security was stringent. People streaming into Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 uprising against its autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, first passed through metal detectors, under the vigilant eyes of soldiers and paramilitary police. Backers of the Brotherhood had tried several times in the last week to breach the square to hold demonstrations of their own, without success.

A woman helping police carry out searches of women entering the square expressed vehement disdain for the Brotherhood. “They are less than the crumbs on a dirty floor,” she spat out.

Adding to the volatile undercurrent, some marchers expressed anger at the West because the U.S. and European governments were critical of the military’s ousting of Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. President Obama and the European Union have pressed for the inclusion of the Islamists in the political process.

“You suffered from terrorism, so why do you support the terrorists?” one man yelled at an American reporter. “Why? I have one question. Why?”

Hassieb is a special correspondent.