Forty-nine people were killed during anti-government marches in Egypt during the weekend, according to security forces. The rapidly rising death toll underlines Egypt’s dangerous political fissures three years after the beginning of revolution that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Security forces lobbed tear gas and some fired automatic weapons in the air to try to prevent demonstrators opposed to the government from reaching Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the 18-day uprising that began Jan. 25, 2011.
As officials tried to calm Cairo's politically charged streets, a car bomb exploded near a police camp in the Egyptian city of Suez, security sources said.
The blast, which was followed by a fierce exchange of gunfire, indicated that the authorities could be locked in a long-term battle with insurgents who are gaining momentum.
In other violence in the country, five soldiers were killed Saturday in the Sinai when an army helicopter crashed in the north of the peninsula in an operation against insurgents. On Sunday, gunmen killed three Egyptian soldiers in an attack on a bus in the Sinai.
The growing violence has apparently not dented the popularity of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose ouster of Mohamed Morsi – an Islamist who was Egypt's first freely elected president – plunged the country into turmoil.
Instead of commemorating the beginning of the end of Mubarak's reign, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square during the weekend to pledge their support for Sisi in an event stage-managed by the state.
The core demands of the 2011 revolt — freedom and social justice — could only be heard in protests outside Tahrir, which were quickly muzzled by security forces.
Sisi’s popularity underscores the prevailing desire for a decisive military man who Egyptians believe they can count on to stabilize their country. On Sunday, Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour said he is amending Egypt's transitional plan to allow for presidential elections before parliamentary polls. The move will allow candidates to rally around the elected president, which would facilitate a friendlier legislature toward Sisi. The new political timetable could see Sisi become head of state within months.
"I have taken a decision to amend the roadmap of the future by starting with a presidential election," Mansour said in an address on state television.
But an end to street violence seemed nowhere in sight. Not far from Tahrir, police in black uniforms clutching assault rifles fired tear gas canisters in a two-hour crackdown on anti-government protesters on Saturday.
Nine protesters were killed in different parts of the capital, where armored personnel carriers were deployed to try and keep order, and anyone entering Tahrir had to pass through metal detectors.
In the southern town of Minya, two people were killed in clashes between Morsi supporters and security forces, said Brigadier Gen. Hisham Nasr, director of criminal investigations in the regional police department.
A woman was killed in Egypt's second city of Alexandria during clashes between supporters of Morsi and security forces. Most of those killed were shot, security sources said.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of the rest of those killed Saturday were not immediately clear.
The violence prompted one alliance of liberals to call on their members to withdraw from the streets.
But others gathered in central Cairo after nightfall to call for an end to the army-backed government. "Down with military rule," they chanted.
Al Jazeera and Reuters