CAIRO - Egypt's leading religious authority warned of "civil war" on Friday and called for calm as political factions clashed ahead of major rallies the opposition hopes can force the Islamist president to quit.
A member of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood was shot dead overnight. Dozens of people were wounded in Alexandria, many by shotgun pellets, when opposition marchers clashed with Islamists on Friday, two days before President Mohamed Morsi's critics hope millions take to the streets to demand new elections.
"Vigilance is required to ensure we do not slide into civil war," clerics of the Al-Azhar institute said. In a statement broadly supportive of Morsi, it blamed "criminal gangs" who besieged mosques for street violence which the Brotherhood said has killed five of its supporters in a week.
The movement's political wing warned of "dire consequences that will pull the country into a violent spiral of anarchy". It held liberal leaders, including former top UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, personally responsible for inciting violence by hired "thugs" once employed by the ousted dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
Opposition leaders also condemned the violence.
In Alexandria, at least 36 people were wounded, a Health Ministry source said, many by birdshot when hundreds scuffled outside a local office of the Muslim Brotherhood. A Reuters reporter saw about a dozen men break off from an anti-Morsi march on the seafront to throw rocks at the building's guards.
They responded. Bricks and bottles flew. Gunshots went off. Ambulances arrived. Military helicopters hovered overhead.
There was no immediate sign of trouble as thousands of Islamists gathered round a Cairo mosque after weekly prayers to show support for Morsi. His opponents hope millions will turn out on Sunday to demand new elections, a year to the day since he was sworn in as Egypt's first freely chosen leader.
"I came to support the legitimate order," said Ahmed al-Maghrabi, 37, a shopkeeper from the Nile Delta city of Mansoura whose hand bore grazes from street fighting there this week. "I am with the elected president. He needs to see out his term."
There was a mostly festive atmosphere in the hot sunshine, with vendors selling mango and cakes and banners flying.
Some opposition gatherings were also under way. A handful of protesters watched security men ringing the presidential palace, the focus for Sunday's Cairo rally. Morsi has moved elsewhere.
A few thousand milled around in the capital's Tahrir Square, cradle of the revolution. Some waved red cards reading "Out!", in preparation for the big demonstration against the president.
The army, which heeded mass protests in early 2011 to push aside Mubarak, has warned it will intervene again if there is violence and to defend the "will of the people". Both sides believe that means the military may support their positions.
The United States, which funds Egypt's army as it did under Mubarak, has urged compromise and respect for election results. Egypt's 84 million people, control of the Suez Canal and treaty with Israel all contribute to its global strategic importance.
The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton urged all sides to keep protests peaceful, build trust and show a "spirit of dialogue and tolerance".ECONOMY
In Alexandria, opposition marchers said they feared the Brotherhood was usurping the revolution to entrench its power and Islamic law. Others had economic grievances, among them huge lines for fuel caused by supply problems and panic buying.
"I've nothing to do with politics, but with the state we're in now, even a stone would cry out," said 42-year-old accountant Mohamed Abdel Latif. "There are no services, we can't find diesel or gasoline. We elected Morsi, but this is enough.
"Let him make way for someone else who can fix it."
Al-Azhar, an ancient academy which traditionally maintains a distance from the political establishment, urged the opposition to accept Morsi's offer of dialogue and abandon demonstrations.
Opposition leaders dismissed Morsi's proposal on Wednesday to include the fragmented opposition in panels to review the constitution and promote reconciliation, saying such offers led nowhere because the Brotherhood refuses to dilute its power.
A liberal activist on the march in Alexandria, Abdelrahman Abdel Wadoud, 27, said: "We are telling Morsi 'your last speech confirms your failure' ... And on June 30 we will go out and will not leave until Morsi leaves."VIOLENCE
The Brotherhood said one of its members was shot dead and four wounded at a provincial party office in the Nile Delta city of Zagazig overnight and blamed anti-Morsi activists, whom it portrays as a mixture of secularists and Mubarak loyalists.
In his speech, Morsi denounced his critics but admitted some mistakes and offered talks to ease polarization in politics that he said threatened Egypt's new democratic system. But opposition leaders said their protests on Sunday would go ahead.
"Dr. Mohamed Morsi's speech of yesterday only made us more determined in our call for an early presidential vote in order to achieve the goals of the revolution," the liberal opposition coalition said after its leaders met to consider a response.
"We are confident the Egyptian masses will go out in their millions in Egypt's squares and streets on June 30 to confirm their will to get the January 25 revolution back on track."
It is hard to gauge how many may turn out but much of the population, even those sympathetic to Islamic ideas, are deeply frustrated by economic slump and many blame the government.
Previous protest movements since the fall of Mubarak have failed to gather momentum, however, among a population anxious for stability and fearful of further economic hardship.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Think others should know about this? Please share