Hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters armed with flags, banners and deafening waves of chants for President Mohamed Morsi’s downfall packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and flooded the streets around Egypt’s presidential palace Sunday in the largest showing of opposition to the Islamist leader since he took office one year ago Sunday.
Thousands of Morsi supporters, many of them from the Muslim Brotherhood party, his ally, filled another Cairo thoroughfare with chants of support. Some brandished wooden clubs, canes and metal pipes, ready to defend themselves in the event that clashes erupted between the two camps, a scenario that many Egyptians feared was inevitable.
As night fell, violent clashes broke out between Morsi’s opponents and supporters in several cities across the country, resulting in four deaths. Attackers also stormed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters, hurling molotov cocktails and setting the building on fire. Witnesses said they were met with birdshot fired from the building’s windows.
But the rival protests remained largely peaceful, despite skirmishes in the capital and across the country, bolstering confidence among those seeking to oust the president and underscoring the lingering question of how the nation of 85 million can reconcile its devastating political divide more than two years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi is Egypt’s first democratically elected president. But opposition protesters — a loose alliance of liberal and secular activists, old regime loyalists and a growing number of the nation’s disenchanted poor — say Morsi has lost his legitimacy during a year of political turmoil as the country’s economy has faltered and security in the streets has crumbled.
Opposition leaders say they want Morsi to resign, the Islamist-dominated elected upper house of parliament dissolved and the Islamist-drafted constitution shelved in favor of a new round of elections and a new constitution.
The president’s supporters, most of them from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, accuse the opposition of challenging the democratic process and engaging in a conspiracy to oust an elected ruler.
“We’re supporting the legitimacy of an elected president,” said Azmi Sabah, a journalist at the pro-Morsi rally, where many demonstrators made the case that Egypt’s Islamists are the law- abiding good guys.
“We are the good people of Egypt. We are doctors, lawyers and engineers,” Sabah said. Other men jumped in to say that there was no sexual harassment in their demonstration — unlike in liberal Tahrir Square — and that Islam’s prophet Muhammad protected the Jews and Christians.
But as each side sought to claim the nation’s majority, and thus the legitimacy, on Sunday, it was also apparent that the president’s supporters were vastly outnumbered. And that, political analysts said, left a resolution to Egypt’s crisis hanging in uncertainty.
“There is a good scenario, and there is a bad scenario,” said Yasser El-Shimy, an Egypt analyst for the International Crisis Group. “I think the good scenario is for the president to get the hint that his approach has failed to build a consensus so far and it needs a serious readjustment.” Ideally, the opposition would accept some sort of compromise then and recognize Morsi’s legitimacy, he said.