Hundreds of thousands thronged the streets of Cairo and cities around the country Sunday and marched on the presidential palace, filling a broad avenue for blocks, in an attempt to force out the Islamist president with the most massive protests Egypt has seen in two-and-a-half 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 raging fire erupted at the gates of the walled villa. During clashes, 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 one of their own, brought to office in a legitimate vote. Thousands of Islamists massed not far from the presidential palace in support of Morsi, some of them prepared for a fight with makeshift armor and sticks.

At least five anti-Morsi protesters were killed Sunday in clashes and shootings in southern Egypt.

The protesters aimed to show by sheer numbers that the country has irrevocably turned against Morsi, a year to the day after he was inaugurated as Egypt's first freely elected president. But throughout the day and even up to midnight at the main rallying sites, fears of rampant violence did not materialize.

Waving flags, blowing whistles and chanting, the protesters aimed to show by sheer numbers that the country has irrevocably turned against Mohammed Morsi, a year to the day that he was inaugurated as Egypt's first freely elected president.

"Tens of thousands of protesters are here and chanting and shouting," CBC News' Derek Stoffel reported from Cairo. "What they are chanting is, 'Go away, go away.' They want President Mohammed Morsi to step down and they want early elections.

"They say they will stay here in the square until Morsi steps down," Stoffel added. "They say remember what happened two-and-a-half years ago during the revolution that saw Hosni Mubarak thrown out of office. They have the same resolve to do It again."

Morsi made clear through a spokesman that he will remain in place and his Islamist supporters vowed not to allow protesters to remove one of their own, brought to office in a legitimate vote. Thousands of Islamists massed not far from the presidential palace in support of Morsi, and fears are widespread that the two sides are heading to a violent collision.

At least four people were killed Sunday in shootings at anti-Morsi protesters in southern Egypt. After dark, youths attacked the headquarters of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo with rocks and firebombs, sparking clashes.

'Morsi got all of us against him, even the army and police. He won't take long. We want him out.'—Amr Tawfeeq, protester

But the rampant violence many feared did not erupt so far. Instead, the giant anti-Morsi rallies by hundreds of thousands in Cairo's central Tahrir Square and outside the Ittihadiya palace were festive and celebratory, spilling into side streets and across boulevards.

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.

'We are ready to pay the price'

"Mubarak took only 18 days although he had behind him the security, intelligence and a large sector of Egyptians. Morsi got all of us against him, even the army and police," said Amr Tawfeeq, an oil company employee marching toward Ittihadiya with a Christian friend. "He won't take long. We want him out and we are ready to pay the price."

Morsi, who has three years left in his term, has said he will not step down, saying street protests cannot be used to overturn the results of a free election.

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Egyptian policemen march with opponents of Morsi in Cairo. The anti-Morsi camp is made up of a variety of groups including Christians and Muslims. (Mohammed Abu Zaid/Associated Press)

As the crowds massed, Morsi's spokesman repeated the president's longstanding offer of dialogue with the opposition to resolve the nation's political crisis, calling it "the only framework through which we can reach understandings."

"I cannot imagine any substitute for dialogue," said the spokesman Ihab Fahmi. The opposition has repeatedly turned down his offers for dialogue, arguing that they were for show.

There is a sense among opponents and supporters of Morsi that Sunday is a make-or-break day, hiking worries that the two camps will come to blows, even as each side insists it won't start violence. Already at least seven people, including an American, have been killed in clashes the past week, mainly in Nile Delta cities and the coastal city of Alexandria.

But up until nightfall Sunday, violence was limited. Two offices belonging to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, were attacked and ransacked Sunday by protesters in the city of Bani Suef, south of Cairo.

Fuel shortages, rising prices

The demonstrations are the culmination of polarization and instability that have been building since Morsi's June 30, 2012 inauguration as Egypt's first freely elected leader. 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.

In one camp are the president and his Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood and more hard-line groups. Morsi supporters accuse Mubarak loyalists of being behind the protests, aiming to overturn last year's election results, just as they argue that remnants of the old regime have sabotaged Morsi's attempts to deal with the nation's woes and bring reforms.

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Opponents of Morsi protest outside the presidential palace. Morsi has three years left in his term and refuses to step down before that. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

On the other side is an array of secular and liberal Egyptians, moderate Muslims, Christians — and what the opposition says is a broad sector of the general public that has turned against the Islamists. They say the Islamists have negated their election mandate by trying to monopolize power, infusing government with their supporters, forcing through a constitution they largely wrote and giving religious extremists a free hand, all while failing to manage the country.

With protesters from a range of social and economic levels in a festive atmosphere, the crowds resembled those from the 18 days of protests against Mubarak -- a resemblance the protesters sought to reinforce, chanting the slogan from that time: "The people want to topple the regime."

Army troops deployed

In Cairo, some marchers carried tents, planning to camp in Tahrir or outside the palace. Residents of nearby buildings sprinkled water down on the marchers to cool them in the punishing summer heat and waved flags and blew whistles in support. 

"The country is only going backward [under Morsi]. He's embarrassing us and making people hate Islam," said Donia Rashad, a 24-year-old unemployed woman who wears the conservative Islamic headscarf. "We need someone who can feel the people and is agreeable to the majority," added Rashad, who wore a tiny tiara in the letters of "erhal." 

At the pro-Morsi rally at the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque, the crowd chanted, "God is great," and some held up copies of Islam's holy book, the Qu'ran.

'The country is only going backward [under Morsi]

. He's embarrassing us and making people hate Islam.'

—Donia Rashad, protester

"The people hold the legitimacy and we support Dr. Mohamed Morsi," Ahmed Ramadan, one of those at the rally said. "We would like to tell him not to be affected by the opponents' protests and not to give up his rights we are here to support and protect him."

Underlining the potential for deadly violence, a flurry of police reports on Sunday spoke of the seizure of firearms, explosives and even artillery shells in various locations of the country, including Alexandria and the outskirts of Cairo. Banks closed early and most government offices shut down on Sunday, a work day in Egypt.

The opposition protests emerge from a petition campaign by a youth activist group known as Tamarod, Arabic for "Rebel." For several months, the group has been collecting signatures on a call for Morsi to step down.

On Saturday the group announced it had more than 22 million signatures — proof, it claims, that a broad sector of the public no longer wants Morsi in office.

Morsi's supporters have questioned the authenticity and validity of the signatures, but have produced no evidence of fraud.

Adding to his troubles, eight lawmakers from the country's interim legislature announced their resignation Saturday to protest Morsi's policies. The 270-seat chamber was elected early last year by less than 10 percent of Egypt's eligible voters, and is dominated by Islamists.

Army troops backed by armored vehicles were deployed Sunday in some of Cairo's suburbs, with soldiers, some in combat gear, stood at traffic lights and major intersections. Army helicopters flew over Cairo on several occasions on Sunday, adding to the day's sense of foreboding. The aircraft were loudly cheered every time they flew over Tahrir.

Travel advisories

The U.S. is advising citizens to "defer non-essential travel to Egypt at this time" because of unrest in the country.

"U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security," Friday's advisory said.

Canada's current advisory urges travellers to "exercise a high degree of caution" when visiting Egypt. Canada advises against all travel to the Sinai Peninsula — excluding coastal resorts — as well as Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.

 

With files from The Associated Press