CAIRO - Two people were killed and dozens injured in street fighting on Wednesday north of Cairo between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president, hours before Mohamed Morsi was to address the nation.
With Egypt gripped by fears of a showdown between Islamists and their opponents, security sources said 90 people wounded in the city of Mansoura after hundreds of men were involved in rock-throwing street skirmishes. Witnesses also heard gunfire.
There was also fighting in the nearby Nile Delta city of Tanta, though casualties appeared to have been less severe.
Similar outbursts of violence, often prompted by one side or the other staging rallies, have hit towns across the country in recent days. At least two men died last weekend. The opposition plans mass protests this weekend, calling for Morsi to resign.
He shows no sign of doing that and is expected to blame the deadlock that has aggravated an economic crisis on resistance from those loyal to his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
The army has warned politicians it could effectively take charge again if they fail to reconcile. Some in the anti-Mursi camp might welcome that, but Islamists say they would fight any "coup" against Egypt's first freely elected leader.
Fears of a violent stand-off in the streets between Morsi's Islamist supporters and a broad coalition of the disaffected have led people to stock up on food. Long lines of cars outside fuel stations have snarled roads in Cairo and other cities.
The army and police are preparing to contain any trouble, adding men and barriers around important public buildings. The government promises to allow peaceful protests but many fear that, with huge crowds, any trouble could spin out of control.
Morsi, who marks his first year in office on Sunday, has given no hint of the contents of what aides called an "important speech". It is due to start around 9:30 p.m. (1930 GMT) at a Cairo hall before an invited audience. Some speculate he may reshuffle his cabinet to try to defuse the anger against him.
Some observers fear Egypt may be about to erupt again, two years after the revolution that toppled Mubarak. Politics are polarized between Morsi's disciplined Muslim Brotherhood and disparate opponents who have lost a series of elections.
The deadlock has contributed to a deepening economic crisis and the government is running out of cash.
Washington has urge Morsi to bring the opposition into the political process and to press ahead with economic reforms.
Liberal critics worry about Islamist rule - a coalition of local human rights groups accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday of crimes rivalling Mubarak's and of setting up a "religious, totalitarian state". But many Egyptians are simply frustrated by falling living standards and fear chaos.
Lining up at a bank machine in downtown Cairo, IT trainer Amgad al-Fishawi, 40, said he feared cash could be hard to find in the coming days and echoed the resignation felt by many at the deadlock: "Morsi won't promise too much," he said. "Nobody's paying attention. The people don't expect anything from him."
The army is held in high regard by Egyptians, especially since it pushed aside Mubarak following the 2011 uprising. Its chief issued a warning on Sunday, urging compromise while also defending the legitimacy of Morsi's election.
One senior Western diplomat in Cairo said the army might try to impose a solution, especially if the political deadlock turns violent: "The margin for a political solution is definitely very narrow," he said. "If (violence) crosses a certain threshold, the role of the army might become by default more proactive."
Islamists, oppressed for decades, fear a return of military rule and hardliners warn of a fight if the generals intervene. They accuse Mubarak-era institutions, including courts, state media, police and civil service, of working to undermine Morsi.
An officer in one of Egypt's internal security agencies told Reuters this week that the country needed to be "cleansed" of the Islamists who he described as terrorists. He said that the protest rallies could be the trigger for change.
The army, still heavily funded by Washington as it was under Mubarak, and Western governments have been urging Morsi to bridge differences with his non-Islamist opponents. He says he has tried. They say he and his Muslim Brotherhood, along with harder line allies, are trying to monopolise the state.
Mursi says a petition demanding he quit - which liberal organizers say has 15 million signatures - is undemocratic. In that, he has support from Islamists, who have staged shows of strength in recent days and plan a major Cairo rally on Friday.
Nationwide opposition rallies, are due to start on Sunday but could begin earlier.
"This demonstration is spontaneous and comes from the Egyptian people. We hope that it will bring the government ultimately to a place where the reforms are effected and choices that need to be made about the economy are implemented," US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday in Saudi Arabia.
"We will obviously hope that it will not produce violence and be a moment of catalysing positive change for Egypt itself."
The opposition have low expectations of the speech which Morsi appears to be planning to make before a partisan crowd. Liberal activists plan to watch it on a screen in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where the revolt against Mubarak began in January 2011.
Liberal coalition spokesman Khaled Dawoud said: "He missed several opportunities in the past to build bridges with the Egyptian people. At this point, it's too late for any possible measures, short of early elections, to stop the demonstrations."
Dawoud likened Morsi's address to speeches made by Mubarak during the revolt. The army eased him aside after 18 days and took power itself until Morsi took office on June 30 last year.
Among criticisms of Morsi, a less than charismatic speaker who became the Brotherhood's presidential candidate as a last-minute stand-in, is that he has turned for support to harder line Islamist groups, including former militants.
The lynching of five Shi'ite Muslims on Sunday revived fears among minorities, including Egypt's several million Christians, and has been used by the opposition to portray Morsi as tolerant of an extremist Sunni Muslim fringe.