CAIRO Millions of Egyptians took to the streets across the country on Sunday to demand the removal of President Mohammed Morsi, three years before his term expires.
While the protests on the one-year anniversary of Morsi's inauguration were largely peaceful after days of worries that they would lead to clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi camps, they were not violence-free.
The Associated Press reported that at least five anti-Morsi protesters were killed Sunday in clashes and shootings in southern Egypt. And in Cairo, a hard core of young Morsi opponents broke away from the rallies and attacked the main headquarters of the president's Muslim Brotherhood, pelting it with stones and firebombs until a raging fire erupted in the walled villa. During clashes, the AP reported, Brotherhood supporters opened fire on the attackers, and activists said three protesters were killed.
The crowds appeared larger than those in 2011 that led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, and their size seemed to catch Morsi's supporters by surprise. Morsi's spokesman, Ehab Fahmy defended the president in a news conference, his second of the day, that began after 11 p.m. as millions remained in the streets.
"Whoever says the presidency doesn't listen to demands and protests is wrong," Fahmy said. "We are keen to consider these demands." Later, he said: "Dialogue is the only way to reach consensus. The presidency aims to reach serious national reconciliation to pull the country out of its current state of polarization."
He offered no specifics, however, and there seemed little chance Morsi would agree to the main demand of his foes and resign.
Morsi's approval rating has plummeted, from 75 percent just after taking office to 24 percent today, about the same as Mubarak's when he fell, and that was reflected in the huge turnout.
This normally bustling city set aside its usual business on what in Egypt is the first day of the workweek as protesters flocked to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace in scenes repeated across the country.
As the day's summer heat broke with sunset, the crowds grew, and by nightfall, the numbers nationwide appeared to have surpassed those of 2011, when 18 days of demonstrations led to Mubarak's fall.
"Ir-hal, Ir-hal," they chanted the Arabic word for 'leave' so loudly that it could be heard far from the demonstration.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators near the presidential palace in Nasr City spent much of the day marching with sticks in hand, many wearing motorcycle helmets in case their opponents came toward them. But when the two camps were within yards of one another they maintained a respectable distance, the Morsi supporters better armed, his opponents far greater in number.
The National Salvation Front, the opposition umbrella group, urged protesters to remain in city squares until "the fall of the last remnants of this despotic regime," a strategy that could lead to days, if not weeks, of protests.
There was a spirit of euphoria among the disgruntled Egyptian demonstrators, who seemed undeterred by the fact that there was no obvious mechanism, with the military having declared neutrality, for them to force from power the country's first democratically elected president. The opposition also has yet to put forward anyone who would be a viable replacement for Morsi. Nevertheless, they seemed overjoyed at finding how widespread the anti-Morsi sentiment was.
With the numbers increasing, the Muslim Brotherhood made small concessions, acknowledging that the opposition had a view that should be heard. By evening, its official Twitter feed carried this hopeful assessment: "So far, today is a good day for our emerging democracy."
It was a dramatic change in tone from a nationally televised address Morsi gave Wednesday, in which he largely blamed opponents for the nation's problems.
Still, Morsi showed little sign he would step down.
"If we changed someone in office who (was elected) according to constitutional legitimacy well, there will be people opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later they will ask him to step down," he said in an interview with London's Guardian newspaper.