CAIRO -- In highly anticipated protests to mark the first anniversary of President Mohammed Morsis inauguration, millions of Egyptians took to the streets across the country in unprecedented numbers Sunday to demand his removal from office, three years before his term expires.
The protests were largely peaceful after days of worries that they would unleash bloodshed between pro- and anti-Morsi camps, but they were not violence free. Four people were reported killed, three from gunshots in the city of Assuit, 230 miles south of Cairo, and one in the town of Beni Suef, 75 miles south of the capital.
But in most places where they came together, the two sides kept their distance, with Morsis supporters vastly outnumbered by the presidents opponents.
The crowds were much larger than those in 2011 that led to the resignation of then President Hosni Muabrak, and their size seemed to catch the presidents partisans by surprise. Morsis spokesman, Omar Amer, defended the president at a news conference that began after 11 p.m. as millions remained in the streets.
Whoever says the presidency doesnt listen to demands and protests is wrong, Amer said. We are keen to consider these demands.
Later, he added, "Dialogue is the only way to reach consensus. The presidency aims to reach serious national reconciliation to pull the country out of its current state of polarization."
He offered no specifics, however, and there seemed little chance that Morsi would grant their primary condition stepping down.
Morsis approval rating has dropped precipitously, from 75 percent just after taking office to 24 percent today, about the same as Mubaraks when he fell, and that was reflected in the huge turnout.
This normally bustling city set aside its usual business on what in Egypt is the first day of the work week as seas of protesters flocked to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace in scenes repeated across the country. Chants, honking and cheers could be heard at every corner. Local news channels showed as many as 16 split screens of ongoing protests across the country.
As the days sweltering summer heat broke with sunset, the crowds only grew, and by nightfall, the numbers nationwide appeared to have surpassed those of 2011, when 18 days of demonstrations led to the fall of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.
Ir-hal, Ir-hal, they chanted the Arabic word for Leave so loud that it could be heard far from the actual demonstration. Many carried the Egyptian flag, red, white and black punctuation to the crowds.
It was uncertain that the peaceful nature of the protests would hold. A crowd threw Molotov cocktails at the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive religious group through which Morsi rose to prominence, and there were reports that Brotherhood supporters inside responded with fire from pellet guns. Just two days ago, at least four people were killed, including an American bystander, on a day of protests dedicated to Morsi supporters.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators near the presidential palace in Nasr City had spent much of the day marching with sticks in hand, many wearing motorcycle helmets in case their opponents came toward them. But when the two camps were within yards of one another they maintained a respectable distance, the Morsi supporters better armed, his opponents, far greater in number.