CAIRO — Violence erupted across Egypt on Friday as tens of thousands took to the streets in an angry backlash against President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, demanding regime change on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. At least seven protesters and two police officers were killed.
Two years to the day after protesters first rose up against the autocratic leader, the new phase of Egypt's upheaval was on display: the struggle between ruling Islamists and their opponents, played out against the backdrop of a worsening economy.
Rallies turned to clashes in multiple cities, with police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones. At least six people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in Suez, where protesters burned a building that once housed the city's local government. Another person died in clashes in Ismailia, east of Cairo.
At least 480 people were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said, raising the possibility of a higher death toll.
Friday's rallies brought out at least 500,000 Morsi opponents, a small proportion of Egypt's 85 million people, but large enough to show that antipathy toward the president and his Islamist allies is strong in a country fatigued by two years of political turmoil, surging crime and an economy in free fall. Protests and clashes took place in at least 12 of Egypt's 27 provinces, including several Islamist strongholds.
"I will never leave until Morsi leaves," declared protester Sara Mohammed as she was treated for tear gas inhalation outside the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district. "What can possibly happen to us? Will we die? That's fine, because then I will be with God as a martyr. Many have died before us and even if we don't see change, future generations will."
The opposition's immediate goal was a show of strength to force Morsi to amend the country's new constitution, ratified in a national referendum last month despite objections that it failed to guarantee individual freedoms.
More broadly, the protests display the extent of public anger toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents accuse of acting unilaterally rather than creating a broad-based democracy.
During his six months in office, Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected and civilian president, has faced the worst crises since Mubarak's ouster — divisions that have left the nation scarred and in disarray. A wave of demonstrations erupted in November and December following a series of presidential decrees that temporarily gave Morsi near absolute power, placing him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, including the ultraconservative Salafis, have justified their hold by pointing to a string of election victories over the past year. The opposition contends they have gone far beyond what they say is a narrow mandate — Morsi won the presidency with less than 52 percent of the vote. Brotherhood officials depict the opposition as undemocratic, using the streets to try to overturn an elected leadership.
Early today, Morsi called on Egyptians to express their views "peacefully and freely," without violence. Writing on Twitter, he offered his condolences to the families of those killed and pledged to bring the culprits to justice. His tweets appeared to be an attempt to project an image of himself as president of all Egyptians, in the face of repeated opposition claims that he has been biased in favor of the Brotherhood.
Looming over the struggle between the Islamists and opposition is an economy in tatters since Mubarak's ouster. The vital tourism sector has slumped, investment has shriveled, foreign currency reserves have tumbled, prices are on the rise and the local currency has been sliding.