Thousands of opponents and supporters of Egypt’s Islamist president have turned out in their masses for a nationwide protest which many fear could turn deadly.
Waving Egyptian flags, crowds descended on Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo, one of a number of sites in the capital and around the country, where rallies have been organised.
Chants of ‘erhal’ or ‘leave!,’ have rang out in the square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
At least four people have been killed and nearly 200 wounded in the clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Morsi, security and medical sources said. All four dead were shot in Nile Valley towns south of Cairo, one in Beni Suef and three in Assiut.
Across the country, the Health Ministry said, 174 people were given medical treatment as a result of factional fighting in the streets.
Anti-government protesters set the national headquarters of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood ablaze after throwing petrol bombs and exchanging gunfire with guards.
Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said he was in contact by telephone with staff at the compound on a rocky plateau overlooking Cairo, who told him its fortified perimeter had not been penetrated. A Reuters journalist saw flames licking out of upper-storey windows.
Hundreds of anti-Morsi protesters gathered outside, kept back by shotgun blasts from inside the compound, continued to hurl flares and rocks. No police were present. Some protesters were taken away with wounds from birdshot.
On the other side of Cairo, thousands of the Islamist leader’s supporters gathered not far from the presidential palace in a show of support. Some wore homemade body armour and construction hats and carried shields and clubs.
There is a sense among opponents and supporters of President Morsi that Sunday’s rally is a make-or-break day, increasing worries that the two camps will come to blows despite vows by each to remain peaceful.
Already at least seven people, including American student Andrew Pochter, 21, have been killed in clashes the past week, mainly in Nile Delta cities and the coastal city of Alexandria.
Today’s demonstrations, which have fallen on the anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration as Egypt’s first freely elected leader, are the culmination of growing polarisation since he took office.
In one camp are the president and his Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and more hard-line groups.
They have vowed to defend Morsi, saying street demonstrations cannot be allowed to remove a freely elected leader. The other is an array of secular and liberal Egyptians as well as moderate Muslims and Christians.
They say the Islamists have overstepped their election mandate, accusing them of trying to monopolise power and mismanage the country.
The opposition believes that with sheer numbers in the street, it can pressure Morsi to step down.
‘Today, the people will triumph over fascism,’ prominent pro-democracy campaigner and bestselling novelist Alaa al-Aswany wrote on his Twitter account.
Police have seized firearms, explosives and even artillery shells around the country in an attempt to prevent violence. In an interview published on Sunday in The Guardian, Morsi – who has three years left in term – said he had no plans to meet the protesters’ demand for an early presidential election.
‘If we changed someone in office who (was elected) according to constitutional legitimacy – well, there will (be) people or opponents opposing the new president too, and a week or a month later, they will ask him to step down,’ said Morsi.
‘There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy,’ he said.
As the crowds swelled in Tahrir, traffic in the capital’s normally clogged streets was light at midday with many residents choosing to stay home for fear of violence or a wave of crime similar to the one that swept Egypt during the 18-day, anti-Mubarak uprising. source – Daily Mail UK