In highly anticipated protests to mark the first anniversary of President Mohammed Morsi’s 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 Morsi’s supporters vastly outnumbered by the president’s 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 president’s partisans by surprise. Morsi’s 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 doesn’t 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.
Morsi’s approval rating has dropped precipitously, from 75 percent just after taking office to 24 percent today, about the same as Mubarak’s 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 day’s 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.
Egypt’s controversial police force was largely unseen, stationed not at the protests but protecting buildings such as banks, mosques, hotels and government headquarters. In an irony, protesters who in 2011 had complained of police brutality chanted the “police and people are one hand.”
Armored personnel carriers, with gunners’ heads popping out on top, could be seen at military bases, but made no effort to intervene, in line with the army’s pledge to take action only to protect civilians. Apache helicopters frequently flew over Tahrir Square, but appeared only to be observing the crowd.
While everyone had a chance to be heard Sunday, there was little evidence that they had said anything that could break the political stalemate that has ruled this country since almost immediately after Morsi’s narrow election win.
The National Salvation Front, the opposition umbrella group, urged protesters to remain in city squares until "the fall of the last remnants of this despotic regime," an admonition that could lead to days, if not weeks, of protests.
There was a spirit of euphoria among the disgruntled Egyptian demonstrators, who seemed undeterred by the fact that there was no obvious mechanism, with the military having declared neutrality, for them to force from power the country’s first democratically elected president. The opposition also has yet to put forward anyone who would be a viable replacement for Mori. Nevertheless, they seemed overjoyed at finding how widespread the anti-Morsi sentiment was.
With the numbers increasing, the Muslim Brotherhood made small concessions, acknowledging that the opposition had a view that needed to be heard. By evening, its official Twitter feed carried this hopeful assessment: “Egyptians on both sides of the isle r able to express opinion peacefully. So far, today is a good day for our emerging democracy.”
It was a dramatic change in tone from a nationally televised address Morsi gave Wednesday, in which he largely blamed opponents for the nation’s problems.
Still, Morsi showed little sign he would step down.
"If we changed someone in office who [was elected] according to constitutional legitimacy – well, there will be people opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later they will ask him to step down," he said in an interview with London’s The Guardian newspaper, published hours before the demonstrations began..
"There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy,” he was quoted as saying. “There can be demonstrations and people expressing their opinions. But what’s critical in all this is the adoption and application of the constitution. This is the critical point."
That was a theme for the pro-Morsi demonstrators on the streets. They were there not to support one man, but to defend the principle of the democratic process, while acknowledging that Morsi’s rule so far had done little to improve their lives.
“I came for Egypt, not for Mohammed Morsi,” said Sabah al Sakkary, head of the women’s committee of the Muslim Brotherhood. “You cannot judge a president in one year. Judge him after four years. Anybody’s in Morsi’s position wouldn’t have been able to do more than he has done.”
The masses offered a variety of options should Morsi step down, at times twisting themselves in a series of contradictions over what constitutes democracy. Some called for Morsi to step down and for the army to take over until new elections can be held, even though the nation’s recently passed, and controversial constitution, does not allow for that. Some asked the head of the constitutional court to take over and rewrite the constitution before new elections. Some simply had no ideas at all other than Morsi had to go.
Either way, Sunday marked a sea change for Morsi’s administration. No longer could Morsi dismiss his opponents as disorganized fringe elements with no grass roots support. Even soldiers in concrete barriers outside the presidential palace said they wanted the protesters to stay until Morsi stepped down.
“God be with you. Don’t leave till he leaves,” said one 21-year-old soldier to the anti-Morsi protesters.
A 23-year veteran of the police, one officer who asked to be identified only as Mohammed, 43, said he came to the palace to join the anti-Morsi crowd as soon as his shift ended at 3 p.m.
Mohammed was accompanied by his friend, Izzi Dayan, 60, who had just retired from the police force three months ago. Dayan rejected the supporters claim that Morsi had not had enough time in office to fulfill his promises.
“He said he would solve a lot of things in the first 100 days and he didn’t do any of them,” Dayan said.
Morsi’s whereabouts were unknown. But a soldier outside his presidential palace said there was an “uncountable” number of troops on the other side of the concrete wall should protesters try to breach the palace walls.
McClatchy special correspondents Amina Ismail and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Morsi's spokesman.