Malawi, which has had relative peace and stability in the last decade, may be better known as the place where Madonna adopted two children and launched a development project for orphans.
Mutharika came to power in a 2004 election and was reelected in May 2009. But tensions have grown this year over worsening fuel shortages. High unemployment amid a deteriorating economic situation also threaten to reverse development gains made early in his presidency.
On Wednesday, protesters attacked businesses belonging to the president's political allies. Looters in the capital of Lilongwe had targeted shops belonging to ruling-party officials, witnesses said.
The human-rights watchdog Amnesty International said eight journalists were beaten by police during Wednesday's protests, and a radio reporter was seriously wounded.
Amnesty researcher Simeon Mawanza said the president's regime was becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices.
The situation was tense but calm Thursday amid a heavy military and police deployment in the country's two main cities.
Tim Hughes, a political analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the unrest was wholly uncharacteristic of Malawi.
"Certainly since democracy in 1994, while there's been sporadic outbursts of interparty violence, there's never been a violent protest like this on the streets," he told the Associated Press.
Foreign donors are also becoming skeptical and cautious of a possible democratic reversal in the country, resulting in the severing of diplomatic ties, and a cut back in aid, Hughes added.