Millions of Egyptians took to the streets Sunday demanding that President Mohamed Morsi step down immediately in what one military source called “the biggest protest Egypt has seen in its history.”
Squares across the country were overwhelmed by the scale of popular participation and energy, which some say represented possibly the largest political assembly in world history. CNN reported over 33 million people were out in Egypt on Sunday, or nearly 40 percent of the country, according to satellite data.
The country is now in celebration mode, with high expectations about the freedom and social justice seen looming on the horizon. The grassroots campaign Tamarod, which was behind the call for the mass protests, announced victory over the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule of Egypt. The group said Saturday that their petition to unseat Morsi gathered over 22 million signatures and presented a clear call for early elections.
Large Egyptian flags stretched from building to building in Cairo, home to 20 million people, as the streets here on Sunday looked unusually empty. Meanwhile, squares across the nation reached maximum capacity.
The largest assembly was in Tahrir in central Cairo, the birthplace of the January 25, 2011 revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. Two and a half years later, Egyptians chose to celebrate the first anniversary of Morsi rule with red cards that read “get out” and “leave.” Fireworks illuminated the sky Sunday evening as crowds continued their celebration.
Some estimates put participation at Tahrir at 4 million, with about 3 million surrounding the Itahadiya Presidential Palace. Hundreds of thousands protested in cities around the country including Alexandria, Mansoura, Assuit, Fayom, Portsaid, Mahala and some 60 other locations.
“We are taking the country back [from them]. Morsi is no longer in charge,” Tarek, 24, told Occupy.com in a side street overlooking Tahrir Square.
A sense of joy was visible in the capital as entire families flooded the streets — children and parents, couples, groups of young and old — chanting with intensity, “Down with the regime!”
The mass of the protest was larger than anyone here had ever seen, bigger even than the 18-day protests which unseated Mubarak.
“We are here to oust Morsi,” said Mohamed Al-Sayed, 55, a printing supervisor who was accompanied in Tahrir by his wife and two children, Jomana, 5, and Ahmed, 13. “Enough. A whole year and you have done nothing but benefit your group and the Guidance office,” he added, addressing the president.
“We want the best for our children and the children of others. We can’t live well, Muslim or Christian: we are all in the same boat,” said Al-Sayed’s wife.
“Wasn’t 30 years of injustice enough? We want security and stability, no more injustice.”
Meanwhile on Sunday, the Egyptian military’s intervention in the conflict loomed.
“The armed forces must act, because they have always been on the side of the people, which has expressed its will,” said Hamdeen Sabbahi, the leftist leader who came in third in the 2012 presidential elections.
On Monday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to accept that invitation with the Egyptian military’s released of an official statement — or rather an ultimatum.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will not be part [of] the circles of politics or governing and refuses to stray from its role in the democratic process that arises from people’s demands,” the statement began.
“National security is facing grave dangers as a result of the developments taking place in the country and it puts responsibility on us, each in their post, to halt these dangers.”
A spokesperson for the General Command of the Armed Forces gave all political groups in Egypt a 48-hour grace period to respond to the demands of the people, after which the military threatened to intervene.
On Sunday, Tamarod, or “Rebel,” gave Morsi a similar ultimatum.
“We give Mohamed Morsi until 5:00 pm on Tuesday, July 2 to leave power, allowing state institutions to prepare for early presidential elections,” Tamarod said in a statement on its website.
“Tuesday, 5:00 pm will be the beginning of a complete civil disobedience campaign,” the group warned. “There is no way to accept any half measures. There is no alternative other than the peaceful end of power of the Muslim Brotherhood and its representative, Mohammed Morsi.”
Earlier, Morsi spoke to the British newspaper The Guardian and refused the earlier calls for his ouster.
“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 told the newspaper.
“There is no room for any talk against this constitutional legitimacy. There can be demonstrations and people expressing their opinions,” he added. “But what’s critical in all this is the adoption and application of the constitution. This is the critical point.”
Morsi’s argument however had waning support in the streets, where fear and frustration gave way to hope and joy as people talked about the rift that has deepened between the government and the people in the last 12 months — and expressed confidence about the greater changes on the way.
“It all felt shockingly beautiful,” said Jehan al-Sayed Morsi, an educator who joined the protest with friends. “No one imagined such a turnout. When we were there, it wasn’t about taking sides, it was about mutual passion.”
Nagwa Khalil, a mother of five, described why she took her sons and daughters Sunday and headed for the square.
“I am here for our daily bread,” said Khalil, who works as a heavy transport contractor. “My job is dependent on diesel, which has stopped because of the gas crisis. Then the business stopped.”
Khalil’s daughter, Dahlia, a 20-year-old unemployed IT graduate, said her main concern was finding work. “If we can all find work while Morsi is in power, then fine, but [it’s] unlikely,” she said.
For others her age, the right to education was the biggest pull to Sunday’s protests. Mariam, 19, a law student at Ain Shams University, said the current authority needs to take its hands off her school.
“Enough sabotage and corruption in the university,” she said, noting the political crackdown that has take place against activists and students exercising freedom of speech at the Cairo-based university.
Even as the protests swelled on Sunday, the military was never far out of sight. While people spoke on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, a military Apache helicopter flew overhead, evoking massive cheers from the crowd.
Meanwhile, the army dropped Egyptian flags on the protesters below, who continued to chant for the military. During marches, some police officers and army personnel greeted protesters who broke out in chants of “The military and the people are one hand,” and “The police and the people are one hand.”
But the military’s presence failed to stop violence on Sunday, as seven died and many hundreds were injured. Clashes erupted outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the hilly area of Moqatam, just outside the capital, where ONTV satellite channel footage showed shooters firing at the crowd below from the building’s windows.
Angry protesters who hurled rocks at the building soon started running away from bullets before a huge explosion torched the building. Initial reports say a gas container exploded.
A volunteer medical group called Tahrir Doctors told the channel late on Sunday that six people had died there from fatal gun shots; two were shot in the head. Doctor Nermeen, the caller, said the group had recorded 60 injuries and added that security forces were nowhere to be seen.
The Muslim Brotherhood promised to take action after the torching of its headquarters. But, one day into the second year of Morsi and the Brotherhood’s rule, it is the military’s looming return to power that has the country on alert, anticipating a transition that might come soon.
“They will run back to their holes, like mice,” a waiter at an upscale Cairo restaurant said, referring to the Brotherhood’s pending removal from power.