CAIRO ? 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 2? 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 in the walled villa. During clashes, Brotherhood supporters opened fire with birdshot on the attackers, who swelled to a crowd of hundreds.
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 four people were killed Sunday in shootings at anti-Morsi protesters 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.
Instead the mood was largely festive as protesters at giant anti-Morsi rallies in Cairo's central Tahrir Square and outside the Ittihadiya 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, culminating a year of growing polarization, 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 Monday. 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 now 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.