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Egypt braces for rival rallies to mark October 6 holiday

In the lead up to the October 6 holiday, many Egyptians worry that the polarised political environment will only bring more bloodshed. Erin Cunningham reports from Cairo

Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour, centre, takes part in a ceremony at the memorial of the Unknown Soldier and tombs on Saturday as part of the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the October 6 war. AFP
Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour, centre, takes part in a ceremony at the memorial of the Unknown Soldier and tombs on Saturday as part of the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the October 6 war. AFP

CAIRO // Dozens of military vehicles have sealed off Cairo’s Tahrir Square ahead of rival rallies planned on Sunday to mark the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s most recent war with Israel.

Pro-military groups say they will rally on Sunday in the iconic plaza and other public squares in support of the armed forces, whose chief, Abdul Fattah El Sisi, led the ousting of the former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July.

A coalition aligned with Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is also calling for marchers to descend on the square from different parts of Cairo, in an attempt to pressure authorities and to keep their waning protest movement alive.

The pro-army crowd is vowing to keep the Islamists from Tahrir, where government workers recently planted fresh grass and repaired sidewalks in preparation for the rally.

Once uniformly celebrated as a battlefield victory against a foreign enemy, the “6th of October”, after which a Cairo bridge and an Egyptian city are named, is this year laying bare Egypt’s internal divides.

Following the upheavals of this summer, during which hundreds of both civilians and security forces were killed and thousands arrested, the country remains starkly divided. Villages, neighbourhoods and even families are split along political lines.

Egypt’s private and state media say the Islamists, who presided over a disastrous year in power, are terrorists from whom the country needs cleansing. Pro-Morsi supporters have carried out bomb and other attacks against Christian establishments, government offices and security forces across the country.

In the lead up to the October 6 holiday, many Egyptians are worried the polarised political environment will only bring more bloodshed.

“This year I am worried more about what will happen on that day,” Zeinobia wrote on her widely read blog Egyptian Chronicles. “And whether more Egyptians will be killed on the hands of other Egyptians in a useless fight over power.”

On Friday, four Egyptians were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in Cairo. Gunmen meanwhile shot dead two soldiers on the desert road between Cairo and the increasingly restive Suez Canal town of Ismailia. Medics said another four civilians were killed in the southern town of Assiut.

The group Tamarod that spearheaded the petition to drive Mr Morsi from power had called on Egyptians last week to rally despite “threats of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organisation”.

“We call all Egyptians to come out tomorrow across all squares in the country to assert that this nation will not allow its revolution to be stolen and will not allow the gangs to impose their will on the people of Egypt,” Tamarrod leader Mahmoud Badr said on Saturday.

Meanwhile, an umbrella group of anti-regime movements calling itself the Anti-Coup Alliance says its planned protests today will “reclaim the revolution”.

“We will not accept a military or police state,” an alliance spokesperson said.

October 6 has long been a source of pride for Egyptians, recalling the day in 1973 when its soldiers, backed by the air force led by Hosni Mubarak, who went on to become president in 1981 and was succeeded by Mr Morsi after the 2011 uprising, pushed across the Suez Canal to drive the Israeli army from the Sinai Peninsula.

The surprise attack, on the eve of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, caught the Israelis offguard. Their soldiers eventually fought back, coming within 100 kilometres of Cairo. But the war led to the Camp David peace accords and the return of Sinai to Egypt.

It is widely seen as a victory following the defeat of the Arab armies, including Egypt’s, in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.

Some analysts say the Brotherhood’s decision to protest on such a venerated national holiday will only further alienate mainstream Egyptians already fed-up with the Islamists, whose continuing demonstrations often devolve into violence but rarely make political gains.

After a disruptive year under Mr Morsi – during which the economy tanked, law and order broke down and sectarian rhetoric threatened religious minorities – Egyptians flocked to the military as a bulwark of stability against what many perceived as government-sanctioned Islamist extremism.

In the days leading to Mr Morsi’s removal on July 3, millions of Egyptians turned out to call for the Islamist president to step-down – some of the largest protests in the country’s history.

Now, photos of the charismatic defence minister Gen El Sisi, are hanging in cafes, on lampposts and the back of buses.

Public schools kicked-off the academic year this month playing pro-military songs rather than the national anthem. Fighter jets and army helicopters now stage regular flyovers in downtown Cairo.

“The Brotherhood’s attempt to broaden its appeal beyond its base is very likely to fail in the short term,” said Hani Sabra, Middle East and North Africa director at the New York-based Eurasia Group, a political risk firm.

“The memory of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency still evokes reflexively powerful opposition among non-Islamists.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae