Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- At least 18 people died in Egypt as four explosions ripped through Cairo and Islamist supporters clashed with police in a spasm of violence a day before the anniversary of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.
The first blast was a car bomb that struck the Cairo Security Directorate, killing four and wounding scores, according to the Health Ministry. Three explosions struck locations including a police station and cinema in Giza to the south of the city center, leaving two dead.
The militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis claimed responsibility and said Egyptians celebrating tomorrow will also be targets for attack, according to the state-run Ahram Gate website. Meanwhile, clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and police left 12 people dead across the country, the official Middle East News Agency reported.
The violence is deepening divisions between supporters of the army-backed government, and its declared transition to democracy, and backers of ousted President Mohamed Mursi who say that a new police state is emerging.
The presidency condemned today’s explosions in an e-mailed statement, saying they’ll unite Egyptians behind the goals of the revolts that toppled Mubarak and later Mursi. Authorities won’t hesitate to take any “necessary extraordinary measures to protect the nation,” it said.
The government and the Brotherhood, an organization that rose to power with Mursi’s election only to see its fortunes collapse with his removal in July, are planning rival demonstrations tomorrow to mark the third anniversary of the 2011 revolt.
As they do so, several of the activists who led the revolt are behind bars in what rights groups such as New York-based Human Rights Watch say is a widespread crackdown on dissent.
“It’s only the faces that have changed, without any real change to the way the country and its economy are run,” Amr Ali, a member of the 6th of April youth movement that was at the forefront of the uprising three years ago, said of the new Egypt. “There’s no longer talk of freedoms because virtually no one still believes in the importance of freedoms.”
The arrest and prosecution of activists have accompanied a crackdown on the Brotherhood and a surge in violence across the country. About 1,000 Mursi backers have been killed in clashes with security forces and hundreds of others, including the deposed Islamist president, are standing trial.
Amnesty International said this week that Egypt has seen “state violence on an unprecedented scale” since the army overthrew Mursi. The government says it’s the target of violence, pointing to a wave of militant attacks.
Those strikes, which had been concentrated in the restive Sinai peninsula, have spread to urban centers, including Cairo. Suicide car bombs, until recently unseen in Egypt, have been used. One such attack was the attempted assassination of the Mursi-installed interior minister who later sided with the military and Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi.
The government has blamed the Brotherhood for the attacks, and designated the group a terrorist organization.
The “most salient feature” of Egypt’s political scene is the “general atmosphere of crackdown on dissent that exists and that appears to have public backing,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Repression “has extended far beyond just the Brotherhood and now encompasses known activists and secular opposition figures.”
Government officials say they are restoring democracy, pointing to the constitution approved by referendum last week, with presidential elections due later this year.
Looming over tomorrow’s anniversary is the question of whether al-Seesi will run in that poll. He’s a hero for many Egyptians seeking stability after years of political unrest and economic stagnation. Critics say that today’s Egypt is replicating some of the worst aspects of Mubarak’s.
Egypt’s economy has been growing at the slowest pace in two decades, even though stocks and bonds have rebounded since the army intervention. The grievances over jobs and prices that helped fuel the 2011 demonstrations are still widespread.
Activists point to what they say is a targeting of opponents as evidence the current government is merely paying lip service to the idea of freedom and reform. Officials have repeatedly denied such allegations.
Ali says dozens of members of the 6th of April group have been arrested in recent months. Ahmed Maher, one of its founders, has been jailed.
The blasts today, which began with the police headquarters bombing, will heighten concerns of more violence tomorrow, with the Brotherhood calling for a new “revolutionary wave.”
Ali said he views the anniversary as an opportunity “to renew the demands” of the 2011 uprising. Authorities aren’t taking any chances: about 260,000 police backed by armored vehicles will be deployed, according to MENA.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who survived the assassination attempt in September, promised that celebrations tomorrow will be safe, MENA reported.
The Brotherhood, which also played a part in protests against Mubarak, says it’s committed to peacefully reversing what it calls the “coup” that removed Mursi. It’s urging demonstrators to call for “the toppling of the regime,” a slogan similar to those used in 2011.
At the other end of the spectrum, politician Moustafa Bakri, speaking at a recent rally to support al-Seesi for president, called for gatherings to “celebrate the revolution” and the police.
Many voters in the referendum last week cited the need for stability and economic recovery, as well as anger at the Brotherhood, as reasons for backing the new charter. It was approved by 98 percent of those casting ballots, with a turnout of 39 percent, according to official figures. The Brotherhood and some other opposition groups boycotted the vote. Heba Mohamed, a housewife, said she’d watch any celebrations and demonstrations tomorrow from a distance.
“If everyone is on the street protesting or celebrating, who’s going to work and build the country?” she said. “Enough with the instability, bloodshed and violence. We really need to move on with our lives.”
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