CAIRO — Massive crowds thronged the streets of Cairo and cities around the country Sunday and marched on the presidential palace in a cheering tide of people that filled a broad avenue for blocks in an attempt to force out the Islamist president with some of the most gigantic protests Egypt has seen in 2 1/2 years of turmoil.
Waving flags, blowing whistles and chanting, the protesters aimed to show by sheer numbers that the country has irrevocably turned against Mohammed Morsi, a year to the day that he was inaugurated as Egypt’s first freely elected president.
Morsi made clear through a spokesman that he will remain in place and his Islamist supporters vowed not to allow protesters to remove one of their own, brought to office in a legitimate vote. Thousands of Islamists massed not far from the presidential palace in support of Morsi, and fears are widespread that the two sides are heading to a violent collision.
At least four people were killed Sunday in shootings at anti-Morsi protesters in southern Egypt. After dark, youths attacked the headquarters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo with rocks and firebombs, sparking clashes.
But the rampant violence many feared did not erupt so far. Instead, the giant anti-Morsi rallies by hundreds of thousands in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square and outside the Ittihadiya palace were festive and celebratory, spilling into side streets and across boulevards.
Fireworks went off overhead. Men and women, some with small children on their shoulders beat drums, danced and sang, “By hook or by crook, we will bring Morsi down.” Residents in nearby homes showered water on marchers below — some carrying tents in preparation to camp outside the palace — to cool them in the summer heat and blew whistles and waved flags in support.
“Mubarak took only 18 days although he had behind him the security, intelligence and a large sector of Egyptians,” said Amr Tawfeeq, an oil company employee marching toward Ittihadiya with a Christian friend. Morsi “won’t take long. We want him out and we are ready to pay the price.”
The massive outpouring against Morsi, culminating a year of growing polarization, raises the question of what is next. Protesters vow to stay on the streets until he steps down. The president, in turn, may be hoping protests wane.
For weeks, Morsi’s supporters have depicted the planned protest as a plot by Mubarak loyalists. But their claims were undermined by the extent of Sunday’s rallies. In Cairo and a string of cities in the Nile Delta and on the Mediterranean coast, the protests were comparable in size — if not larger — than the biggest protests of the 2011’s 18-day uprising, including the day Mubarak quit, Feb. 11, when giant crowds marched on Ittihadiya.
It is unclear now whether the opposition, which for months demanded Morsi form a national unity government, would now accept any concessions short of his removal. The anticipated deadlock raises the question of whether the army, already deployed on the outskirts of cities, will intervene. Protesters believe it would throw its significant weight behind them, tipping the balance against Morsi. The country’s police, meanwhile, were hardly to be seen Sunday.
“If the Brothers think that we will give up and leave, they are mistaken,” said lawyer Hossam Muhareb as he sat with a friend on a sidewalk near Ittihadiya. “They will give up and leave after seeing our numbers.”
Violence could send the situation spinning into explosive directions.
In a potentially volatile confrontation after nightfall, several dozen youths attacked the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters on a plateau overlooking the capital. They threw rocks and firebombs at the walled villa, and people inside fired at the attackers with birdshot, according to an Associated Press Television News cameraman at the scene.
Southern Egypt saw deadly attacks on anti-Morsi protests. A protester was shot to death in Beni Suef outside the offices of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on a protest, killing one person and wounding four others in the city of Assiut.
The enraged protesters then marched on the nearby local Freedom and Justice offices, where gunmen inside opened fire, killing two more, security officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press. Clashes erupted with protesters and security forces fighting side by side against Morsi’s supporters.
At least 400 people were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said.
Morsi, who has three years left in his term, said street protests cannot be used to overturn the results of a free election.
“There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy,” he told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper in an interview published Sunday, rejecting early elections.
If an elected president is forced out, “there will (be) people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down,” he said.