CAIRO — Millions of Egyptians streamed into the streets of cities across the country Sunday to demand the ouster of their first elected head of state, President Mohammed Morsi, in an outpouring of anger at the political dominance of his Islamist backers in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The scale of the demonstrations, coming just one year after crowds in Tahrir Square cheered Morsi’s inauguration, appeared to exceed even the massive street protests in the heady final days of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. At a moment when Morsi is still struggling to control the bureaucracy and just beginning to build public support for disruptive economic reforms, the protests have raised new hurdles to his ability to lead the country as well as new questions about Egypt’s path to stability.
Clashes between Morsi’s opponents and supporters broke out in several cities around the country, killing at least seven people — one in Beni Suef, four in Assiut and two in Cairo — and injuring hundreds. In Cairo, a mob of hundreds set fire to the almost-empty Brotherhood headquarters, pelting it with stones, Molotov cocktails and fireworks for hours. A handful of members hiding inside the darkened building fired bursts of birdshot at the attackers, wounding several, but police and security forces did nothing to stop them.
Demonstrators said they were angry about the near total absence of public security, the desperate state of the Egyptian economy and an increase in sectarian tensions. But the common denominator across the country was the conviction that Morsi had failed to transcend his roots in the Brotherhood, an insular Islamist group officially outlawed under Mubarak that is now considered Egypt’s most formidable political force. The scale of the protests across the country delivered a sharp rebuke to the group’s claim that its victories in Egypt’s newly open parliamentary and presidential elections gave it a mandate to speak for most Egyptians.
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“Enough is enough,” said Alaa al-Aswany, a prominent Egyptian writer who was among the many at the protests who had supported the president just a year ago. “It has been decided for Mr. Morsi. Now, we are waiting for him to understand.”
Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar who studies the Muslim Brotherhood closely, said: “The Brotherhood underestimated its opposition. The crowds are bigger than they expected and most people expected, and this is going to be a real moment of truth for the Brotherhood.”
Morsi and Brotherhood leaders have often ascribed much of the opposition in the streets to a conspiracy led by Mubarak-era political and financial elites determined to bring them down, and they have resisted concessions in fear that the opposition’s only real motive is the Brotherhood’s defeat. But by Sunday night, the crowds were enormous, and many analysts said they were likely to send a message to other Islamist groups around the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
“It is a cautionary note: Don’t be too eager for power, and try to think how you do it,” Hamid said, noting that the Egyptian Brotherhood had sought to take most of the power for itself all at once. “I hear concern from Islamists around the region about how the Brotherhood is tainting Islamism.”
Morsi’s administration appeared caught by surprise. “There are protests; this is a reality,” Omar Amer, a spokesman for the president, said at a midnight news conference. “We don’t underestimate the scale of the protests, and we don’t underestimate the scale of the demands.” He said the administration was open to discussing any demands consistent with the Constitution, but he also seemed exasperated, sputtering questions back at the journalists. “Do you have a better idea? Do you have an initiative?” he asked. “Suggest a solution and we’re willing to consider it seriously.”
Many vowed to stay in the streets until Morsi resigned. Some joked that it should be comparatively easy: Just two years ago, Egyptian protesters toppled a more powerful president, even though he controlled a fearsome police state. But there is no legal mechanism to remove Morsi until the election of a new Parliament, expected later this year, and even some critics acknowledge that forcing the first democratically elected president from power would set a precedent for future instability.
Some of the protesters called for another intervention by the military, which seized power from Mubarak and held onto it for more than a year. Chants were directed to the defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi: “Come on Sisi, make a decision!”
Sisi, for his part, has stayed carefully neutral, increasing the protesters’ hopes of military intervention. In a statement last week urging the president and his opponents to compromise, the general said the military would “intervene to keep Egypt from sliding into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting, criminality, accusations of treason, sectarian discord and the collapse of state institutions.”
Many in the opposition saw the statement as an indication that if Sunday’s protests were large enough or disruptive enough, the military would take over once again. The military sent four helicopters flying low over a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Sunday to reinforce its power and control, and many below cheered.