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51 die as holiday turns into onslaught in Egypt

Published October 7, 2013 9:06 am

Bloodshed • Backers of ousted president battle supporters of military.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Cairo • The thudding discharge of tear-gas cannons and the crackle of gunfire echoed through the streets of Cairo on Sunday, as renewed clashes broke out between anti-coup protesters and Egyptian security forces on a national holiday fraught with historical symbolism.

At least 40 people were killed and more than 200 injured, according to the Ministry of Health.

Oct. 6 marks the 40th anniversary of Egypt's surprise attack against Israeli forces at the Suez Canal in 1973. The victory, which forced a dramatic Israeli retreat, was short-lived, and the Egyptians were later repelled.

But successive military regimes in Egypt have celebrated Oct. 6 as a point of national pride, often using annual victory celebrations to bolster their own support.

A spokesman for Egypt's presidency said Saturday that anyone protesting the military on Oct. 6 would be considered a foreign agent.

And on Sunday, supporters of the July 3 military coup that ousted the country's first Islamist president used the holiday to draw new comparisons of victory and defeat, heroic leadership and the decades-old dichotomy of Egypt's victorious military vs. its Islamist rivals.

For many of the military's supporters, Sunday was as much, if not more, of a celebration of Egypt's military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who engineered the coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, and who many here hope will run for president.

"Today is considered his holiday," said a vendor selling an array of posters bearing Sissi's face juxtaposed against humiliating depictions of Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood. One poster bore an illustration of Sissi as a butcher, slaughtering a sheep with Morsi's face.

But as the military and its supporters celebrated in the capital's Tahrir Square with patriotic dance and musical performances, thousands of anti-coup protesters struggled but failed to bring their own rival chants to the iconic space, repelled by swarms of police, tear gas and gunfire.

The rival protests and outbreak of violence highlighted the lingering thrust of an Islamist opposition movement that the country's interim military-led government has worked hard over the past two months to crush. Sunday was the largest showing by anti-coup protesters in weeks.

Rights activists say that more than a thousand Morsi supporters have been killed and many more arrested since August, effectively decapitating Egypt's oldest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, in what human rights groups have called the deadliest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

Remaining Muslim Brotherhood supporters and anti-coup activists have continued to stage small protests in recent weeks, and many carried yellow posters bearing the four-fingered hand that has become the symbol of their former protest camp outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, where security forces killed more than 600 people in raids on Rabaa - which means "four" - and another protest camp on Aug. 14.

Periodically on Sunday, fighter jets roared low overhead in a show of force cheered by the coup's supporters and jeered by its opponents.

"They want to send a message that they are in control, to intimidate us," said Manal Mokhtar, a dentist who had joined the anti-coup protest with other female friends and family. "But that will only make us more determined."

Outside Tahrir, crowds of pro-military Egyptians queued for a quarter of a mile to enter a square tightly cordoned by army vehicles, and where victory rhetoric in chants and posters blended support for Sissi with pride in the nation's military past.

Members of an unofficial Sissi campaign group said they hoped to use the day to lobby the military leader to run for president.

"I'm here to celebrate, but also to support Gen. Sissi," said Aya Gamal, who had come with her fiance from the port city of Suez, the scene of Egypt's dramatic 1973 assault on Israeli forces.

She clutched a picture of Sissi, alongside two previous Egyptian military leaders - Gamal Abdel Nasser, who presided over the 1973 war, and Anwar Sadat, who presided over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty five years later and was assassinated by Islamists at his own Oct. 6 celebration.

"Abdel Nasser said it before: 'You can't trust the Muslim Brotherhood,' " chanted a man among the revelers, as patriotic tunes played.

"This poster has all of Egypt's greatest leaders on it," Gamal said.

The protesters across the river who oppose the coup against Morsi "are not Egyptians," she added, echoing a statement by a government spokesman Saturday. "They should be executed," she said.

Nihad al-Kilani, a journalist and an anti-coup protester, offered her own narrative. "They want to steal the glory of the 6th of October victory and cloak themselves in it because they have nothing else," she said.

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Lara El Gibaly in Cairo contributed to this report.

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