A spate of deadly bombings put Egyptian police on edge Saturday as supporters and opponents of the military-installed government prepared rival rallies for the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
Hours before the rallies were due to start, a small bomb outside a police training centre in north Cairo wounded one person, the health ministry said, a day after four blasts, including a car bombing outside police headquarters, killed six people.
An Al-Qaeda inspired group — Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem — claimed responsibility for the bombings, all of them targeting police, and urged ordinary Egyptian “Muslims” to stay away from police buildings.
Police deployed across the capital as supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, toppled by the military in July, readied counter-demonstrations to the commemorations called by the authorities.
Police fired tear gas to disperse one protest as soon as it gathered outside a Cairo mosque, an AFP correspondent reported.
The protesters included both Morsi supporters and activists who accuse the military of hijacking the government.
The Islamists had announced plans for marches from more than a dozen Cairo mosques on Saturday to launch 18 days of protests.
On Friday, clashes pitting Morsi supporters against their opponents and police killed 15 people nationwide, the health ministry said.
Police, who have killed hundreds of Islamist protesters in street clashes since Morsi’s overthrow, have vowed to put a stop to their planned demonstrations.
But they have encouraged Egyptians to turn out in support of the interim government, and some politicians called for rallies to back army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who overthrew Morsi in July.
By afternoon, several thousand pro-government demonstrators had already gathered in Tahrir Square, epicentre of the popular revolt that toppled autocratic president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Interim prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi briefly visited the demonstrators before heading to a police hospital to check on those wounded in Friday’s attacks, a spokesman said.
‘No to terrorists’
Tanks stood guard at the entrances to Tahrir as some of the demonstrators chanted: “No to terrorists.” Many waved Egyptian flags and carried posters of Sisi.
Western governments warned their citizens of the risks of violence during the day.
The US embassy called on nationals to “limit their movements… to the near vicinity of their neighbourhoods.” Britons were urged to “stay inside”.
Government and military officials have hinted for days that the turnout at the pro-government rallies on Saturday could be a bellwether for a run by Sisi in a presidential election promised for later this year.
Sisi is widely seen as a strongman who can restore order and fight militancy, which the interim government blames on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood condemned Friday’s bomb blasts as they have previous attacks on the police and army.
But following a previous attack on a police building in December, also claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, the authorities declared the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation”, making even expressions of verbal support punishable by heavy prison sentences.
Mubarak was forced to step down on February 11, 2011 after 18 days of demonstrations that left some 850 people dead, ending his three-decade rule of the Arab world’s most populous country.
On his overthrow, the armed forces took power, handing the reins over 16 months later to Morsi — the country’s first freely elected head of state.
But late last June, after just one year of turbulent rule by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, millions of Egyptians took to the streets to demand his resignation.
Three days later, Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster. The Islamist president has been in custody ever since and is on trial in four separate cases.
The army’s political comeback signalled a return to the former regime’s authoritarianism for some of the activists who led the January 25 revolution.
But for the millions who took to the street to demand Morsi’s ouster last year, the interim authorities and the “democratic transition” they have announced represent a modicum of stability after three years of turmoil.
Security forces have waged a bloody crackdown on Morsi’s supporters since his overthrow — at least 1,000 people have been killed and thousands of Islamists arrested.
Amnesty International said there had been “state violence on an unprecedented scale over the last seven months”.