ASSIUT, Egypt – The southern Egyptian city of Assiut has long been a haven for radical Islamists, and its Christian minority has largely kept a low profile. That all changed this weekend.
An estimated crowd of 50,000 packed the streets this weekend to join protests calling for President Mohammed Morsi's ouster, prompting a violent response that left three people dead.
The show of defiance can only be fairly measured in view of the city's bloody history and the shifts in the local centers of power when Morsi became president a year ago, empowering many of the hard-line Islamist groups around the country, including those in Assiut.
The bloody end of the protest — 32 people were also injured — points to the high risks that Assiut residents, particularly Christians, face if they were to join the wave of opposition to Morsi's rule that culminated Sunday when millions of Egyptians came out across the country to demand his ouster.
"I, my kids Mariam and Remon and my husband, Nabil, came out because we miss the Egypt we know and we want it back," Assiut resident Mary Demian said. "These people (militant Muslims) say we are infidels and they terrorize us, but we are not scared. This is our nation and we have always lived with Muslims in peace."
The size of Sunday's rally was nearly five times the demonstration that celebrated the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. But what is equally important is that the protesters showed a level of defiance and courage that may have been unthinkable just days ago.
It defined a change of mood in a city of 1 million people where political activism has traditionally been the exclusive domain of the powerful Islamists of Gamma Islamiya, a hard-line group that fought a bloody insurgency against Mubarak's regime in the 1990s. The insurgency left more than 1,000 people dead, including foreign tourists and Christians.
The group, born in Assiut in the 1970s, has since renounced violence and set up a political party after Mubarak's ouster, joining a new political landscape dominated by Islamists. Thousands of its members were jailed under Mubarak's 29-year rule. It is now one of the strongest allies of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Adding to the combustible mix, Christians in Assiut province make up about a third of its 4 million people. In all of Egypt, Christians make up about 10 percent of the estimated 90 million people.
In that context, Assiut can be a major flashpoint if the two sides decide to fight it out. Islamists across much of the country were mobilizing their supporters Monday night after the chief of the armed forces gave Morsi and his opponents 48 hours to work out their differences. If they don't, warned Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the military will intervene with a political road map of its own for the nation's future.
In the meantime, millions of Morsi opponents are rallying for a second day in a row, filling Cairo's Tahrir Square, the thoroughfare outside Morsi's presidential palace, and elsewhere in the country.
Sunday's events in Assiut underline the city's potential as a main battlefield in the fight between the two sides.
Significantly, the anti-opposition rally was held in tandem and in close proximity to another one by Gamaa Islamiya, whose members toured the city on motorbikes chanting "Down with the saboteurs!" before they gathered near a government building only 50 yards from the opposition rally.
"Our rally was a message to everyone that we are here on the streets doing what our conscience dictates to us and that we shall not allow saboteurs to do what they wish," said Tareq Beder, the Gamaa official in charge of Assiut.
In the run-up to the opposition rally, several activists also received threatening text messages. "All of you infidels will die," said one, sent to Christian activist Joseph Amin.
The protesters burned posters of Morsi and Assem Abdel-Maged, a longtime leader of Gamaa.
"Oh Assiut, tell the terrorists that Muslims and Christians are united!" they chanted. "Down, down with Assem Abdel-Maged the terrorist!" they screamed.
Abdel-Maged, a native of Assiut, has been taking the lead in a campaign to discredit Morsi's critics, delivering fiery speeches that brand them as communists, extremist Christians and paid Mubarak loyalists.
The violence began soon after the festive rally got underway when a suspected Islamist riding behind another man on a motorbike opened fire on the crowd, killing a 21-year-old Christian man, Abanob Atef, and injuring 11. Protesters used the blood from the fatal head wound to write on the ground "Erhal!" or "Leave!" — the chant of the Arab Spring protesters now directed at Morsi.
Enraged by the violence, many of the protesters moved to the nearby villa housing the local branch of the Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Suspected Morsi supporters in the villa opened fire on the protesters, killing two more and injuring another 21, according to security officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. Fighting continued with the protesters pelting the villa with firebombs and rocks. Policemen, angered by the death of one of their own, joined the fight on the side of the protesters.
The fighting continued for hours, with the police occasionally retreating because of heavy gunfire. Morsi's supporters, some wearing construction helmets and homemade body armor, shot at the protesters and police from pickup trucks and motorbikes that came in waves.
Both the Gamaa and the Muslim Brotherhood in Assiut have denied involvement in the violence.
Violence resumed Monday, with about 3,000 anti-Morsi protesters storming and torching the villa housing the Freedom and Justice party.
Hendawi reported from Cairo.