CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Cairo and cities around Egypt on Sunday in an attempt to force out the Islamist president with the most massive protests the country has seen in 2½ years of turmoil.
In a sign of the explosive volatility of the country's divisions, a hard core of young opponents broke away from the rallies and attacked the main headquarters of President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, pelting it with stones and firebombs until a fire erupted in the walled villa. Brotherhood supporters opened fire on the attackers, and activists said three protesters were killed.
Fears were widespread that the two sides could be heading to a violent collision in coming days. Morsi made clear through a spokesman that he would not step down, and his Islamist supporters vowed not to allow protesters to remove Egypt's first freely elected president.
The demonstrations are the culmination of polarization and instability that have been building since Morsi's inauguration on June 30, 2012. The past year has seen multiple political crises, bouts of bloody clashes and a steadily worsening economy, with power outages, fuel shortages, rising prices and persistent lawlessness and crime. Morsi was elected a year after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular revolt in 2011.
Sunday's demonstrations were largely peaceful, but at least five anti-Morsi protesters were killed in clashes and shootings in southern Egypt. At least 400 people were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said. Two days earlier, at least four people were killed, including an American bystander, on a day of protests dedicated to Morsi supporters.
The protesters on Sunday aimed to show by sheer numbers that the country has irrevocably turned against Morsi. The mood was largely festive as protesters at giant rallies in Cairo's central Tahrir Square and outside the Ittihadiya presidential palace spilled into side streets and across boulevards, waving flags, blowing whistles and chanting.
Fireworks went off overhead. Men and women, some with small children on their shoulders, beat drums, danced and sang, "By hook or by crook, we will bring Morsi down." Residents in nearby homes showered water on marchers below — some carrying tents in preparation to camp outside the palace — to cool them in the summer heat, and blew whistles and waved flags in support.
"Mubarak took only 18 days although he had behind him the security, intelligence and a large sector of Egyptians," said Amr Tawfeeq, an oil company employee marching toward Ittihadiya with a Christian friend. Morsi "won't take long. We want him out and we are ready to pay the price."
The massive outpouring against Morsi raises the question of what is next. Protesters have vowed to stay on the streets until he steps down, and organizers called for widespread labor strikes starting today. The president, in turn, appears to be hoping protests wane.
For weeks, Morsi's supporters have depicted the planned protest as a plot by Mubarak loyalists. But their claims were undermined by the extent of Sunday's rallies. In Cairo and a string of cities in the Nile Delta and on the Mediterranean coast, the protests topped even the biggest protests of the 2011's 18-day uprising, including the day Mubarak quit, Feb. 11, when giant crowds marched on Ittihadiya.
It is unclear now whether the opposition, which for months has demanded Morsi form a national unity government, would accept any concessions short of his removal. The anticipated deadlock raises the question of whether the army, already deployed on the outskirts of cities, will intervene. Protesters believe the military would throw its significant weight behind them, tipping the balance against Morsi. The country's police, meanwhile, were hardly to be seen Sunday.
"If the Brothers think that we will give up and leave, they are mistaken," said lawyer Hossam Muhareb as he sat with a friend on a sidewalk near the presidential palace. "They will give up and leave after seeing our numbers."
Morsi, who has three years left in his term, said street protests cannot be used to overturn the results of a free election. "There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy," he told Britain's Guardian newspaper in an interview published Sunday, rejecting early elections.
As the crowds massed at the presidential palace, Morsi spokesman Ihab Fahmi repeated the president's long-standing offer of dialogue with the opposition to resolve the nation's political crisis, calling it "the only framework through which we can reach understandings."
The opposition has repeatedly turned down offers for dialogue, arguing that they were for show.