Egypt launches massive security crackdown on 2011 uprising anniversary, clashes leave 15 dead

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CAIRO — Anti-government protesters fought street battles with police in Cairo and other cities on Sunday, the fourth anniversary of the country's 2011 uprising, as clashes left at least 15 people dead and dozens injured. Another two people died when an explosive device they were planting under a high-voltage tower in the Nile Delta exploded prematurely, according to security officials.

Most of the deaths took place in Cairo's eastern Matariyah district — an Islamist stronghold where police used tear gas and birdshots to disperse supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group armed with firebombs and rocks. At least nine protesters and one police conscript were killed in the clashes there, the officials said.

Two other protesters and two policemen were killed elsewhere in Cairo on Sunday, and one in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The violence underscored the continued turmoil roiling the Arab world's most populous nation four years after the 18-day uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Although small and scattered, Sunday's violence is likely to impact on Egypt's image as it prepares to host an international donors' conference in March and in which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government has high hopes for the ailing economy.

It also casts a light on the multitude of challenges faced by el-Sissi, who since taking office in June has been struggling to revive the economy, battle an Islamist insurgency and deal with dissent by both Islamists loyal to Mohammed Morsi — the elected president he ousted in 2013 — and the secular and liberal groups behind the 2011 uprising.

Both camps are targeted in crackdowns by el-Sissi's government, but show no sign of being able to overcome mutual distrust and join forces. A career army officer, el-Sissi says his priorities are fixing the economy and battling the insurgency. He has resisted growing calls for reform, while influential media loyal to him has begun regularly maligning the 2011 revolution and its activists.

The Health Ministry said 37 people were injured in Sunday's clashes and the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, said that a total of 134 protesters were arrested nationwide.

By early evening, debris covered the site of the Matariyah clashes and a cloud of tear gas hung over the area. Several cars were damaged, including one that was on fire. Another video shot there earlier on the day showed pedestrians and communal taxis caught in the crossfire between the two sides as gunshots rang out. The videos are consistent with Associated Press reporting on the clashes.

Cairo, a city of some 18 million people, appeared mostly deserted Sunday, with many residents staying home to avoid being caught up in any turmoil. Police sealed off the city's main squares, including Tahrir — birthplace of the 2011 uprising — and beefed up security at vital state installations.

In Downtown Cairo, el-Sissi supporters clashed with mostly young critics of the general-turned-politician in pitched street battles. Police later used tear gas and birdshots to disperse the president's critics, who fled to side streets with riot policemen chasing after them.

The protests and stepped-up security in Cairo and elsewhere came as activists mourned the death of a female protester shot Saturday in downtown Cairo while taking part in a gathering commemorating protesters killed in the 2011 revolt.

Activists blame police for the death of Shaimaa el-Sabagh, a 32-year-old mother of one from Alexandria. The government says it is investigating the incident.

Videos posted online show el-Sabagh, a member of the leftist Popular Alliance party, with other protesters carrying placards and chanting "bread, freedom and social justice" — the chief slogan of the 2011 uprising. She and others carried wreaths of flowers they intended to place at nearby Tahrir Square in memory of the fallen protesters.

In the videos, two masked, black-clad police officers point their rifles in her direction before gunshots ring out. The next frame has her on the ground. She is later shown carried by a male protester as blood seeped out of her mouth. The videos are consistent with AP reporting on the shooting.

Chanting "down, down with military rule!" hundreds attended her funeral in Alexandria on Sunday without incident. A white banner bearing her image was hoisted by the mourners.

The prominent Hisham Mubarak Law Center said in a Facebook post that five of el-Sabagh's fellow protesters who had given investigators their account of the incident were themselves charged with assaulting police and taking part in an illegal demonstration.

There was no immediate confirmation from authorities of the group's claim, but a lawyer who witnessed the shooting as she sat with her family just meters (yards) away at a restaurant posted on Facebook on Sunday her voluntary testimony to investigators. She said that she too was accused of participating in an illegal protest before she was released.

"The regime has decided to frighten and silence all voices," wrote the lawyer, Azza Soliman, who testified that the police shot el-Sabagh.

El-Sabagh's death is the second of a female protester in recent days. Islamist Sondos Reda was shot dead during a Friday protest in Alexandria. Activists also blame the police.

El-Sissi's government has shown zero tolerance for street protests since a law adopted in 2013 banned all demonstrations without prior permission. Dozens of activists have been convicted and jailed for violating the law. A parallel crackdown is targeting Morsi supporters, with thousands from his Muslim Brotherhood group imprisoned or facing trial.

"You can only deal with terrorism when you have free people, not slaves," Elhami el-Mirghani, a senior official in el-Sabagh's political party, told a news conference Sunday. "And this regime is the biggest creator of terrorism."

Sunday's protests were mostly in response to a call for demonstrations by an Islamist coalition led by the Brotherhood. Separately, a prominent Qatar-based cleric loyal to the Brotherhood called on Egyptians in an address posted on YouTube to go out and protest in large numbers.

"Don't be lazy, God will hold you accountable if you waste this opportunity," said Youssef al-Qaradawi, the cleric.

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