Cairo – Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered throughout Egypt to demand the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi, with three reported deaths and buildings burned in sporadic violence.
The protests on Sunday come on the anniversary of Morsi’s poll victory, which made him the nation’s first democratically elected leader after the 2011 revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Protesters packed Tahrir Square in Cairo – the focal point of the revolution – blaming Morsi for a stagnant economy, worsening security and an ongoing lack of basic services Many waved red cards and chanted “irhal” – “leave”.
The opposition group, June 30 Front, said that two marches were moving through the capital – one was heading to the site of the Shura Council and another was moving towards Quba palace, where Morsi is believed to be staying. Both marches will turn into sit-ins at their destinations, the group said.
Three people were reported killed on Sunday – one in Bani Seuf, south of Cairo, and two in Assiut when a gunman opened fire on protesters. The Cairo headquaters of the Muslim Brotherhood was also attacked with petrol bombs. A video of the attack was uploaded to the internet.
Tensions remained high and anti-Morsi crowds swelled as protests moved into the night hours. Morsi supporters held their own rallies in Nasr City and near the presidential palace.
‘Same as Mubarak’
“It’s the same politics as Mubarak but we are in a worse situation,” said Sameh al-Masri, one of the organisers of the anti-Morsi protests. “Poverty is increasing, inflation is increasing. It’s much worse than Mubarak.”
Protesters directed their anger not just at Morsi but the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, which in two years has gone from a banned movement to the rulers. “Mosques should be for religion, not for politics,” said Ahmed Sultan, a student.
The US government was also the target of anger, with one banner reading: “America supports killers of the Egyptian people.”
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The anti-Morsi protests have been organised by a grassroots campaign calling itself Tamarod, meaning “rebellion” or “insubordination”, which claims to have collected the signatures of 22 million Egyptians demanding the president leaves office.
The petition has no legal standing, but it has nonetheless tapped into widespread public anger towards Morsi. The president has made a number of controversial decisions since taking office, most notably a November decree which shielded his decisions from judicial review.
Egypt’s economy is in free-fall: The pound has dropped in value by nearly 20 percent since he took office, foreign investment has withered, and businesses are paralysed by widespread fuel and electricity shortages.
“He’s borrowed money from everyone in the world,” said Said Ahmed, referring to $11 billion in loans Egypt has received from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to prop up the economy. “Who’s going to pay for that? Our children.”
Human rights abuses are widespread, rights groups say, with Morsi’s administration doing little to rein in the notorious security services.
“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.
Calls to resign
Morsi’s supporters liken the calls for his resignation to a coup, arguing that the only way to remove him is through new elections. They carried signs at Friday’s rally insisting that the president’s “legitimacy is a red line”.
“What is the other solution for this dilemma, except the ballot box?”
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It remains to be seen if Tamarod’s campaign can sustain their momentum after Sunday.
Even if the protests draw large crowds, the calendar might work in Morsi’s favour: Brutally hot Cairo days could stifle protests, and the dawn-till-dusk Ramadan fast, which begins around July 8, will discourage public demonstrations.
Role of the military
But there are fears that the protests on Sunday could descend into violence.
Clashes have spread across governorates outside the capital in recent days, with four Brotherhood supporters killed in attacks on the group’s offices, and two people killed in fighting in Alexandria on Friday, including a US citizen.
Amid the growing unrest, tanks and other military vehicles have started to appear on the streets of Cairo.
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defence minister, warned last week that the army had a duty to “prevent Egypt from slipping into a dark tunnel of civil unrest”.