Egyptian Protesters Vow To Keep Going Until Morsi Resigns

Egyptians turned out in record numbers on Sunday to demand the resignation of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The protests marked Morsi's first year in office and appeared to be the largest demonstrations since an uprising forced Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.

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Mohammed Morsi hit a milestone yesterday. He's now spent one year as Egypt's first democratically elected leader. Egyptians marked that anniversary by turning out in massive numbers to demand that the Islamist president resign.

These protests appear to be the largest demonstrations since an uprising forced dictator Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, and they're another reminder that political transitions in the Arab Spring are not necessarily easy.

Morsi is now backed by armed supporters. He says he has no intention of stepping down. Violent clashes between the two sides claimed at least 16 lives and injured around 800 people.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson filed this report from Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOUTING PROTESTERS)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Khaled Fahmy held his elderly father's arm last night as they slowly made their way toward Cairo's main square. The retired judge and novice protester - whose name is Mohammed - grew emotional as he explained why he had come.

MOHAMMED FAHMY: We weep for our situation here now. Egypt deserves better than that.

NELSON: It's a sentiment shared by his son Khaled, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY: I mean, the Muslim Brotherhood - the largest and oldest and best-organized political Islamic organization anywhere in the world, they've had a chance to rule one of the most important countries in the region for a year, and they have failed. So that is the historical significance, that this is a huge section of the Egyptian population saying no to political Islam.

NELSON: Like Fahmy's father, many Egyptians who took part in Sunday's anti-Morsi protests had rarely, if ever, demonstrated before. They ranged from the uneducated poor to the elite, united by a deep frustration over the country's disintegrating economy and the Islamists' hold on power.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING CROWD)

NELSON: Samira Fikry says Egyptians are sending a message to Morsi that they've had enough. The shop owner wore a paper hat with the movement's slogan: Leave.

SAMIRA FIKRY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Fikry says: We feel like we are suffocating, and yet the president dismisses us as thugs. She adds: He and the Brotherhood are the bad ones, not us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING CROWD)

NELSON: Yet protesters appeared more jubilant than angry. Many demonstrations last night across Cairo felt more like block parties, as participants shot off fireworks and street vendors served up a steady stream of food and non-alcoholic drinks.

RAMEZ RAGHEB: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Protester Ramez Ragheb says people are happy because they believe the large turnout will prompt the Egyptian military to back the protesters.

But soldiers and police were absent from most of Cairo's streets yesterday. They rarely stepped in when pro and anti-Morsi forces clashed across Egypt last week.

A lot of the violence is taking place near Brotherhood offices, including at its main headquarters here last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

NELSON: That attack - captured in a YouTube video - escalated as protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails. Several people were killed, and the Brotherhood says its headquarters were overrun and ransacked this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

NELSON: Morsi supporters also armed themselves with clubs at counter-demonstrations held across Egypt. But the president's aides say he wants to ratchet down tensions.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

EHAB FAHMY: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a televised news conference last night, spokesman Ehab Fahmy renewed calls for a national dialogue.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

NELSON: But Egypt's fragmented opposition appears in no mood to compromise. Protest leaders are calling for labor strikes to begin tomorrow afternoon if Morsi doesn't step down.

HAMDEEN SABAHI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Hamdeen Sabahi, who is one of the leaders of the National Salvation Front, an opposition umbrella group, told NPR that the president has one choice: bend to the will of the people and resign.

Some Morsi opponents worry the momentum will fizzle, however. They predict that with the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan beginning next week, the latest protests against Morsi could soon end, as he and his allies are hoping.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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