Cairo - Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Cairo and other cities across Egypt, demanding the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi amid sporadic violence that left several people dead.
The rallies started early on Sunday morning in Cairo's Tahrir Square - the cradle of the Egyptian revolution where Morsi had addressed a jubilant crowd exactly a year ago after being inaugurated as the country's first democratically-elected president.
It's the same politics as Mubarak but we are in a worse situation
The demonstrations swelled in the evening, as marches from various Cairo neighbourhoods reached the square. Tens of thousands of people also gathered around the presidential palace to press the same demands, chanting “irhal” - “leave” - and waving red cards to symbolically urge Morsi’s ouster.
"It's the same politics as Mubarak but we are in a worse situation," said Sameh al-Masri, one of the organisers on the main stage in Tahrir Square. "Poverty is increasing, inflation is increasing. It's much worse than Mubarak."
As anger against Morsi swept the streets, at least seven people were killed and more than 600 wounded in clashes between pro and anti-Morsi supporters, Reuters reported.
Five of the dead were shot in towns south of Cairo, one each in Beni Suef and Fayoum and three in Assiut. Two more were killed by gunfire during an attack on the national headquarters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood in a suburb of the capital, medical sources said.
‘Who’s going to pay?’
A few kilometres away from the presidential palace, thousands of Morsi supporters also staged their own sit-in to defend what they called the president’s “legitimacy”.
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"If we are saying that we have a majority, and the opposition are saying that they have a majority, how can they decide," asked Nader Omran, a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of Muslim Brotherhood.
"What is the other solution for this dilemma, except the ballot box?"
Presidential spokesman Omar Amer said Morsi was serious in his repeated calls for national dialogue.
"(Morsi) announced to all of Egypt's people he made mistakes and that he is in the process of fixing these mistakes," Amer told a late-night news conference.
The duelling rallies on Sunday only further highlighted the deepening political polarisation in Egypt. Morsi supporters are full of praise for his first year in office, insisting that the president has strengthened civilian rule in Egypt and done his best to manage a flailing economy. Many of them dismissed Sunday’s protests as the work of ex-regime figures and “thugs”, fuelled by a hostile media and Western governments.
Anti-government protesters, on the other hand, dismissed Morsi’s first term as a failure and described him as a dictatorial leader. Many accused him of backing Hamas and other militant groups; one well-dressed man in Tahrir insisted that Morsi planned to cede the Sinai peninsula to Hamas.
But their main complaint was the worsening economy, which has been in free-fall since Morsi took office, with the Egyptian pound losing nearly 20 percent of its value and industry crippled by fuel and electricity shortages.
"He's borrowed money from everyone in the world," said Said Ahmed, referring to $11bn in loans Egypt has received from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to prop up the central bank. "Who's going to pay for that? Our children."
‘Hoping’ for a coup
Sunday’s anti-Morsi protests were organised by a grassroots campaign called Tamarod or “rebellion”, which claims to have collected 22 million signatures calling for the president’s ouster.
"We gave him the confidence to ... correct what Mubarak had done to Egypt, but he didn't. So we have the right to withdraw the confidence that the Egyptian people gave him," said Eman el-Mahdy, a spokesperson for Tamarod.
Some police officers could be seen on the streets of Cairo waving red cards and chanting against Morsi.
Rising political tensions have reignited fears of military intervention in the country.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defence minister, warned last week that it was the military's duty to "prevent Egypt from slipping into a dark tunnel of civil unrest".
“They’re adamantly opposed to the Brotherhood and this government, and there are in the officer corps those who have more hardline views on the Brotherhood,” said Michael Hanna, an analyst with the New York-based Century Foundation. “But this is a cautious military leadership. They’re not going to make a decision unless they have to.”
Many protesters nonetheless seemed to be hoping for another military intervention, believing that would be the only means of removing Morsi from office.
“We are hoping for a military coup. It’s the only thing that we can hope for, because they are armed and they can help the people,” said Umm Mohamed, an elderly woman sitting in the square with her husband. “Otherwise we will be in civil war.”