CAIRO — At least 51 people were killed as street clashes erupted in several Egyptian cities Sunday, in a surge of violence that raised new questions about the ability of the interim government to secure the fractured country.
The death toll was the highest in a single day since mid-August, when the authorities began their punishing crackdown on Islamist supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the army on July 3. The military-backed government that replaced him has tried to project an aura of stability in order to lure back the tourists and investors scared off by several years of turmoil in the country.
But on Sunday, only grim, familiar scenes of violence returned, along with the sounds of gunfire.
The deadly bloodshed came as thousands of Egyptians celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel, setting up a day of bizarre contrasts that served as reminders of Egypt’s deepening polarization since the ouster of Morsi.
As the military’s supporters celebrated the anniversary in Tahrir Square in Cairo with music and fireworks, officers and armed civilian loyalists set upon Islamist protesters who were also trying to reach the square, driving back their marches with tear gas and gunfire.
More than 250 people were injured, officials said.
Over the last three months, with little resistance from the public, the military has set out to vanquish the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that propelled Morsi to power. Since July, hundreds of Brotherhood members have been killed and most of the movement’s leaders have been sent to jail or fled the country.
And Morsi’s Islamist supporters, who have re-branded themselves under the banner of the “anti-coup” movement, have continued to protest even with the repression of their marches and sit-ins, and despite dwindling attendance at their demonstrations.
They had billed the protests Sunday as their own tribute to the armed services, while promising a new level of confrontation: For the first time since Morsi’s ouster, the Islamists called for marches on Tahrir Square, a stronghold of the anti-Morsi movement.
The decision to call for demonstrations on Oct. 6, the anniversary of the 1973 war, also seemed part of a repeated, but so far fruitless, effort by the Islamists to form cracks in the military, Egypt’s most powerful institution.
In a statement last week, the anti-coup protesters said they intended to salute “the soldiers who fought the October war — so our brave army regains its commitment to the true Egyptian military doctrine and knows the difference between the enemy and its people, before it turns into militias that do not have any other mission but killing its own people.”
Egypt’s military-backed government responded by calling for its own commemoration of the war in Tahrir Square, setting up the likelihood of a bloody confrontation between civilians. On Saturday, a spokesman for Egypt’s interim president said that protesters against the military were “agents, not activists.”
On Sunday, as military aircraft flew over Cairo to cheering crowds, the Islamists mustered their largest protests in weeks. As the marches converged on Tahrir Square, which was heavily guarded by the military, the Islamists fought with riot police officers and armed civilians in several neighborhoods, including near Cairo’s central train station and in the Dokki area.
Near the train station, police officers standing on a bridge fired tear gas to aid pro-military civilians battling with Islamist protesters in Ramses Square, until the Islamists were forced to retreat. In Dokki, an Associated Press photographer reported seeing nine bodies in a clinic, most of them with gunshot wounds to the head or chest.
On a boulevard by the Nile that has been the site of repeated protests and clashes over the last two years, tires and tree branches smoldered after the latest skirmishes. Fresh graffiti marked a wall.
“Keep erasing, and I will keep writing,” someone had written.
As the death toll rose, Egypt’s military, political and cultural luminaries attended a commemoration of the 1973 war in a military stadium that was broadcast on television and included a lavish fireworks display. The ceremony, which included a pro-military operetta, contributed to the sense of resurgent nationalism that has taken hold since the military took power in July.
The guests included Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the defense minister and Egypt’s de facto leader, who spoke about strength of the military, comparing it to a pyramid. And el-Sissi reminded the audience of a “mandate” he had sought from Egyptians, referring to mass demonstrations he had called for soon after Morsi’s ouster that the general said would authorize him to fight violence and terrorism — a call that was widely seen as a prelude to the crackdown on Islamists.
“We’re fit to be entrusted with this mandate,” el-Sissi said.