At the root of today's deadly clashes in Cairo are dueling opinions over whether the current military leadership or ousted Islamists best embody Egyptians' national identity.
Thirty-four people were killed and more than 209 injured across Egypt on Sunday as rival camps marked Armed Forces Day with rallies to defend their visions of national identity and democratic legitimacy in the deeply divided country.
Large crowds gathered nationwide to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi, ousted in a July 3 military takeover, also rallied in support of their leader and the democratic process they believe he embodies.
Earlier in the week, presidential spokesman Ahmed al-Muslimani warned that protests against the military would not be tolerated.
"Protesters against the army on the anniversary of victory will be carrying out the duties of agents, not activists," he said. "It is not befitting to go from a struggle against authorities to a conflict with the nation."
In the capital, 30 anti-coup protesters were killed during pitched battles with the security services. Marching through the streets of west Cairo’s Dokki district, protesters shouted “we are not real… all this is photoshopped” in reference to the common refrain that Muslim Brotherhood supporters fabricate attendance numbers for the weekly demonstrations that have followed Mr. Morsi’s ouster.
But in Tahrir Square, where thousands had gathered in support of an army that many view as the guardian of Egyptian national identity, protesters argued vehemently that Morsi’s supporters did not represent their country.
“They have nothing to do with Egypt,” said housewife Dina Fahmy, clutching the national flag. “They are brainwashed and taught to listen and obey. They just get orders to march, and so they march.”
Tahrir Square was awash with paraphernalia bearing the face of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, leader of the July putsch against Morsi. Although he has made no public pronouncements over his intentions for Egypt's highest political office, a presidential run by the general would garner widespread support.
The streets of Cairo were heavily policed from the early hours of Sunday morning, following calls from the Morsi-supporting Anti-Coup Alliance for protesters to rally in Tahrir Square, a liberal stronghold and the symbolic epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. But as evening drew in, the pro-military crowd in Tahrir had still faced little trouble and festivities continued.
But while downtown Cairo remained peaceful, fierce clashes raged between anti-coup protesters and police 2.5 miles away in Dokki. Central security forces fired volleys of tear gas at the crowds, while demonstrators responded with stones and fireworks.
The car of former presidential candidate and outspoken Muslim Brotherhood opponent Bothaina Kamel was attacked as it passed through the Dokki demonstrations – the second time in three days that a prominent Egyptian politician has been attacked during demonstrations. On Friday, former spokesman of the National Salvation Front (NSF) and spokesperson for the left-leaning Dostour Party, Khaled Dawoud, was stabbed by Morsi supporters in his chest and wrists.
According to Egypt’s interior ministry, more than 300 anti-coup demonstrators were arrested during Sunday’s demonstrations. Such a high number of detentions will further inflame the grievances of Morsi’s supporters, who have faced a sweeping crackdown by Egypt’s military-backed authorities in the wake of their president’s ouster.