Egyptians Flock to Protests
Masses Demand Resignation of President on Inaugural Anniversary
An Egyptian protester waves a national flag as Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square during a demonstration against President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Sunday, June 30, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of opponents of Egypt's Islamist president poured out onto the streets in Cairo and across much of the nation Sunday, launching an all-out push to force Mohammed Morsi from office on the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. Fears of violence were high, with Morsi's Islamist supporters vowing to defend him. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
An opponent of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wears an Egyptian flag around her face as she protests outside the presidential palace, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, June 30, 2013. Thousands of Egyptians demanding the ouster of Morsi are gathering at Cairo's central Tahrir Square and the presidential palace at the start of a day of massive, nationwide protests many fear could turn deadly. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Cairo — 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 yesterday to demand his removal from office, three years before his term expires.
The protests were largely peaceful after days of worries that they would lead to clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi camps, but they were not violence free. Four people were reported killed, three by 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 President Hosni Muabrak, and their size seemed to catch the president’s supporters by surprise. Morsi’s spokesman, Ehab Fahmy defended the president in a news conference, his second of the day, 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,” Fahmy said. “We are keen to consider these demands.”
Later, he said: “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 agree to their primary demand and resign.
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 what in Egypt is the first day of the workweek as 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.
As the day’s summer heat broke with sunset, the crowds grew, and by nightfall, the numbers nationwide appeared to have surpassed those of 2011, when 18 days of demonstrations led to Mubarak’s fall.
“Ir-hal, Ir-hal,” they chanted — the Arabic word for ‘Leave’ — so loudly that it could be heard far from the demonstration.
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 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 earlier, 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 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 buildings. 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 yesterday, there was little evidence that they had said anything that could break the political stalemate that began almost immediately after Morsi’s narrow election victory.
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 Morsi. 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 Guardian newspaper, published hours before the demonstrations began.