CAIRO, Egypt -- Violence erupted across Egypt on Friday as tens of thousands took to the streets to deliver an angry backlash against President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, demanding regime change on the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak. At least seven people were killed.
Two years to the day after protesters first rose up against the autocratic ex-president, the new phase of Egypt's upheaval was on display: the struggle between ruling Islamists and their opponents, played out against the backdrop of a worsening economy.
Rallies turned to clashes in multiple cities around Egypt, with police firing tear gas and protesters throwing stones. At least six people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in Suez, where protesters set ablaze a building that once housed the city's local government. Another person died in clashes in Ismailia, another Suez Canal city east of Cairo.
At least 480 people were injured nationwide, the Health Ministry said, including five with gunshot wounds in Suez, raising the possibility of a higher death toll.
Early today, army troops backed by armoured vehicles deployed in the area outside the building housing the local government in Suez. The Third Field Army, from which the troops were drawn, announced the deployed force was there to protect state institutions and it was not taking sides.
Friday's rallies brought out at least 500,000 Morsi opponents, a small proportion of Egypt's 85 million people, but large enough to show antipathy toward the president and his Islamist allies is strong in a country fatigued by two years of political turmoil, surging crime and an economy in free fall. Protests -- and clashes -- took place in at least 12 of Egypt's 27 provinces, including several Islamist strongholds.
"I will never leave until Morsi leaves," declared protester Sara Mohammed as she was treated for tear-gas inhalation outside the presidential palace in Cairo's Heliopolis district. "What can possibly happen to us? Will we die? That's fine, because then I will be with God as a martyr. Many have died before us and even if we don't see change, future generations will."
The opposition's immediate goal was a show of strength to force Morsi to amend the country's new constitution, ratified in a national referendum last month despite objections it failed to guarantee individual freedoms.
More broadly, the protests display the extent of public anger toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents accuse of acting unilaterally rather than creating a broad-based democracy.
During his six months in office, Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected and civilian president, has faced the worst crises since Mubarak's ouster -- divisions that have left the nation scarred and in disarray. A wave of demonstrations erupted in November and December following a series of presidential decrees that temporarily gave Morsi near absolute powers, placing him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, including the ultraconservative Salafis, have justified their hold by pointing to a string of election victories over the past year. The opposition contends they have gone far beyond what they say is a narrow mandate -- Morsi won the presidency with less than 52 per cent of the vote. Brotherhood officials depict the opposition as undemocratic, using the streets to try to overturn an elected leadership.
The extent of the estrangement was evident late Thursday when, in a televised speech, Morsi denounced what he called a "counter-revolution" led by remnants of Mubarak's regime.
Early today, Morsi called on Egyptians to express their views "peacefully and freely," without violence. Writing on his Twitter account, he offered his condolences to the families of those killed and pledged to bring the culprits to justice.
His tweets appeared to be an attempt to project an image of himself as president of all Egyptians, in the face of repeated opposition claims he has been biased in favour of the Brotherhood, from which he hails and to which he remains loyal.
Unlike in 2012, when both sides made a show of marking Jan. 25, the Brotherhood stayed off the streets on Friday's anniversary. The group said it was honouring the occasion with acts of public service, such as treating the sick and planting trees.
On the horizon are key elections to choose a new lower house of parliament. The opposition is hoping to leverage public anger into a substantial bloc in the legislature, but must still weld together an effective campaign in the face of the Islamists' strength at the ballot box. Last winter, the Brotherhood and Salafis won around 75 per cent of the lower house's seats, though the body was later disbanded by a court order.
Pending the election of a new lower house, Morsi gave legislative powers to parliament's Islamist-dominated upper house, a normally toothless chamber elected by only about seven per cent of Egypt's 50 million voters in balloting last year.
Friday's protests recreated the tone of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, including the same chants, this time directed against Morsi: "Erhal! Erhal!" --"Leave! Leave!" -- and "The people want to topple the regime."
Clashes erupted outside the presidential palace in Cairo when youths tried to push through a police barricade. In other cities, protesters tried to break into Brotherhood offices as well as government and security buildings.
Clashes between protesters and police outside the state TV building in central Cairo continued into the small hours of today. Some of the protesters held sit-ins in major squares and streets, insisting they would not disperse until Morsi leaves office.
Standing near Tahrir Square, retiree Ahmed Afifi said he joined the protests because he was struggling to feed his five children on less than $200 a month.
"I am retired and took another job just to make ends meet," Afifi said, his eyes filling with tears. "I am close to begging. Under Mubarak, life was hard, but at least we had security... The first people hit by high prices are the poor people right here."
More pain is likely in coming months if the government implements unpopular new austerity measures to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
-- The Associated Press