CAIRO — Tens of thousands of supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi rallied Friday in Cairo, and both sides fought each other in the second-largest city of Alexandria, where two people were killed — including an American — and 85 were injured while at least five offices of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were torched, officials said.
The competing camps were trying to show strength before bigger nationwide protests planned by the opposition Sunday — the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration — aimed at forcing his removal.
Early Saturday, officials of Kenyon College in Ohio identified the slain American as Andrew Pochter, 21, a Kenyon student from Chevy Chase, Md. Pochter was an intern at AMIDEAST, a nonprofit U.S. group engaged in international education, training and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa. The internship was not a Kenyon program, the college said on its website.
The Morsi opposition says it will bring millions into the streets across Egypt, and more violence is feared. Already, six people had been killed in clashes this week, including Friday’s deaths.
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Cairo International Airport was flooded with departing passengers, an exodus that officials said was unprecedented. All flights departing Friday to Europe, the U.S. and the Persian Gulf region were fully booked, they said.
Many of those leaving were families of Egyptian officials and businessmen and those of foreign and Arab League diplomats — as well as many Egyptian Christians, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. State Department warned Americans against all but essential travel to Egypt, citing the uncertain security situation. It also said it would allow some nonessential staff and the families of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to leave until conditions improve.
A military spokesman told the state news agency that the military is deploying nationwide to avoid “a 28 January 2011 scenario,” referring to deadliest day of Egypt’s popular uprising. The state-run newspaper Al-Ahram reported that gold shops had closed in anticipation of unrest, and rumors circulated through wealthy and middle-class circles that ATMs would soon run out of cash. HSBC bank sent a text message to customers that daily ATM withdrawals would be temporarily limited to 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $427.
The broad sense of impending doom marked a dramatic turnaround for the country of 85 million, where one year ago, the first democratic presidential election in the country’s history brought Morsi to power and was deemed a step toward modernity and free politics after six decades of military dictatorship.
But many Egyptians, including some who voted for Morsi, are angry about the way things have turned out. The president has failed to pull Egypt out of an economic quagmire or rectify its billions of dollars in debt, and Morsi’s opponents say the president has focused instead on consolidating the power of the Brotherhood.
More than two years after revolution ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, excitement for the democratic process has fizzled. Politics have torn bitter rifts through society, fueling a standoff pitting a growing number of liberal, secular and poor Egyptians against the president’s Islamist supporters.
The country is angry, poor and hot; motorists wait in gas lines into the night, power outages hopscotch across cities, mothers fight in bread lines and masked men fling Molotov cocktails.
“Both parties think that they can win the game,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egypt expert at Durham University in England. In recent weeks, members of opposition groups have portrayed the Brotherhood as “occupiers” of the state, and extremist clerics have countered that the demonstrators are “infidels,” he said.
“They’ve adopted a very extreme discourse. And there is no common ground,” said Anani.
That was evident Friday in the port city of Alexandria, where opposition protesters broke into the local headquarters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and set fires, throwing papers and furniture out the windows.
“We must be alert lest we slide into a civil war that does not differentiate between supporters and opponents,” warned Sheik Hassan al-Shafie, a senior cleric at Al-Azhar, the country’s most eminent Muslim religious institution.
Morsi opponents massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests in 2011 that ousted Mubarak. The crowd shouted, “Leave, leave” — this time addressing Morsi. Tents were put up on the grass in the middle of the historic square.
Dozens of protesters also gathered at the gates of the presidential palace in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo, urging Morsi to resign, Egypt’s state news agency reported.
At the same time, tens of thousands of Morsi supporters, mainly Islamists, filled a public square outside the Rabia el-Adawiya Mosque, not far from the palace.
“They say the revolution is in Tahrir,” said activist Abdel Rahman Ezz, a Morsi supporter who addressed the crowd. “It is true the revolution started in Tahrir. But shamefully, today the remnants of the old regime are in Tahrir. The revolutionary youth are here.”
The palace is one of the sites where the opposition plans to gather Sunday; it has been surrounded by concrete walls.
In Alexandria, fighting began when thousands of anti-Morsi demonstrators marched toward the Brotherhood’s headquarters, where up to 1,000 supporters of the president were deployed, protecting the building.
When an unidentified person on Morsi’s side opened fire with birdshot on the marchers, the battle erupted, according to an Associated Press cameraman. Security forces fired tear gas at Brotherhood supporters, but when the two sides continued battling, security forces withdrew. Protesters later broke into the building and began to trash it. Online video posted by witnesses showed a protester carrying a gun who appeared to be shooting at the Brotherhood building.
In addition to the American, the Alexandria health department reported an Egyptian died from a gunshot wound to the head.
There was a wave of attacks against Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country. The Brotherhood’s media spokesman, Gehad el-Haddad, accused thugs, remnants of the old government, including members of Mubarak’s disbanded National Democratic Party, of being behind the attacks.