x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Egyptian masses rally in support of El Sisi

Heeding a call from Egypt's top general, hundreds of thousands of people poured into public squares across Egypt to affirm the military's mandate to crack down on what many see as acts of terror by the former president's supporters.

Supporters of Gen Abdel Fatah El Sisi march over a bridge towards Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday. Nariman El Mofty / AP Photo
Supporters of Gen Abdel Fatah El Sisi march over a bridge towards Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday. Nariman El Mofty / AP Photo

CAIRO // Heeding a call from Egypt's top general, hundreds of thousands of people poured into public squares across Egypt to affirm the military's mandate to crack down on what many see as acts of terror by the former president's supporters.

Patriotism was on display in Tahrir Square, which looked like a sea of Egyptian flags.

Many held posters of Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the minister of defence who removed Mohammed Morsi from power this month after huge protests, calling him a national hero.

"Egypt was stolen from us," said Moheb Fahmy, 48, a primary school teacher who joined throngs of pro-military protesters in Tahrir Square yesterday. "Now we are getting it back again."

Despite the celebratory atmosphere during daylight hours, many feared clashes would break out overnight between rival protesters.

Medical officials and the health ministry said 10 people had been wounded in clashes in Cairo by early evening, despite a massive police and military deployment across the country to secure rallies.

And in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, clashes between the rival protesters left two people dead and at least 19 wounded.

Across Cairo from Tahrir Square, thousands of Mr Morsi's supporters held a smaller, rival demonstration calling for the end of a "military coup" and the restoration of legitimacy.

At a square near Rabaa Adaweya mosque, pro-Morsi protesters set up barriers of sandbags and policed entrances with wooden sticks - a striking sign of the group digging in for a long-term battle.

The growing intransigence from Mr Morsi's supporters and increasing anger from the military's backers has pushed tensions to the highest point since a popular uprising in 2011 forced former president Hosni Mubarak to resign.

The announcement in Egyptian state media that Mr Morsi had been charged with espionage, relating to a 2011 incident where he and more than 30 fellow members of the Muslim Brotherhood were broken out of a prison, is expected to only deepen his supporters' resolve to stay in the streets.

Violence between opposing groups in the streets in the past week has left dozens killed and hundreds injured.

The surge in anti-Morsi demonstrations yesterday was spurred by Gen El Sisi, who called on Wednesday for "all honest and trustworthy Egyptians" to come into the streets "to give me the mandate in order that I confront violence and potential terrorism".

Although vague, the reference was clear for supporters of Mr Morsi's removal: the military believed that the former president's allies were instigating acts of terror across Egypt to tip it into greater instability.

Militants have launched several attacks on police and military units in the Sinai region since Mr Morsi was removed. A bomb exploded outside a police station in Mansoura last week, killing one officer.

The Brotherhood, of which Mr Morsi is a former top official, has claimed it had no connection to the attacks and that its supporters were peaceful protesters under assault from the security services.

Few of the Brotherhood's opponents take any stock in those claims.

A television interview of Mohammed El Beltagi, a Brotherhood leader, saying the attacks in Sinai would stop if Mr Morsi was returned to office, has fuelled suspicions that the group was aware of a connection between the sporadic violence there and the removal of the president.

Sameh Samir, 60, the general manager of a water bottling company, said that he was protesting in Tahrir Square to show the world that what happened in Egypt was not a "coup", but a continuation of the 2011 "revolution" that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

"I'm here to support the military and moderate Islam," he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood put this country on a path to destruction. Thank God that Gen El Sisi came to save us. There is no negotiation with terrorists."

bhope@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting by Agence France -Presse