Cairo, Egypt - An ultimatum given by Egypt's military to end a political deadlock has raised the risk of bloodshed spiralling out of control in the troubled country, with supporters and opponents of beleaguered President Mohamed Morsi flooding the streets.
As time ticks down to Wednesday's military deadline for Morsi to resolve the impasse, the outbreak of further deadly violence now looms large.
“Violence is expected to pick up," George Ishaq, a senior member of the opposition bloc National Salvation Front, told Al Jazeera. “We're expecting Islamists to challenge the army and the people, which will fuel violence."
However, it was Morsi's supporters who bared the brunt of attacks on Tuesday. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on crowds of pro-Morsi demonstrators at a night rally in the capital Cairo, killing 18 people and wounding more than 200 others, the Health Ministry said.
It was more honourable to die than to have the people of Egypt terrorised.
The attack came hours after Morsi made a speech on national television rejecting calls for his resignation, and vowing “to give my own life" to defend the “legitimacy" of his rule.
Elsewhere, security forces used armoured vehicles to contain clashes in the northern coastal city of Alexandria between both sides. In the Giza governorate, one person was killed and 72 were wounded, and another 14 Egyptians were injured in the southern tourist city of Luxor.
Tensions have simmered between Islamist supporters of Morsi and the mostly young, liberal and secular groups that orchestrated the 2011 revolt, which led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The strife culminated when an opposition group Tamarod, or rebellion, started collecting signatures for a petition demanding that Morsi step down a year after he came to power. Organisers say the petition now has more than 22 million signatures.
It remains to be seen what the military will do as its deadline expires. Egypt's Defence Minister Abdel-Fataah al-Seesi, who was appointed by Morsi in August in an attempt to constrain the army's powerful political role, said a military “road map" will be imposed to end the year-long polarisation.
With the army presenting itself as the guardian of the “people's will", Morsi's opponents were reassured and have flooded Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 2011 revolt, as well as other areas across the country for the fourth day in a row, pressing for early presidential elections.
The military warned Wednesday “it was more honourable to die than to have the people of Egypt terrorised", said a statement titled “The Final Hours" that was posted by army officers.
"We swear to God that we will sacrifice our blood for Egypt and its people against all terrorists, extremists and ignorant" groups, it said.
| Morsi and Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi [EPA]
The army's intervention has triggered fear among Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood from whose ranks Morsi hails, prompting them to mobilise for marches in support of the “legitimacy" of his rule. They say dialogue is the only solution to the political crisis.
The opposition's Ishaq said the military deadline puts the ball squarely in the court of Morsi's government.
“I pray that today passes by in peace," Ishaq said, adding the looming deadline “is casting pressure on the presidency to make concessions, which it isn't yet willing to accept."
Six of Morsi's ministers, including Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, have resigned over the past two days, adding more pressure on the president.
The UN's high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, called on Morsi to engage in "serious national dialogue" with his opponents.
Government spokesman Ayman Ali said Tuesday talks were underway, but "the results of these negotiations have not crystallised yet".
"[The government is] currently holding constant talks to achieve national reconciliation and find a way out of the current political crisis," Ali said.
Yasser el-Shimy is a Cairo-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. Shimy said the president is holding steadfast against the opposition's demands and the military's threat. He described the army's intervention as a “coup statement".
“He's [Morsi's] not backing down and it's obvious that the army has been waiting for this opportunity," he told Al Jazeera. “If the army decides to press ahead with an unconstitutional solution, Islamist groups too will resort to unconstitutional reactions."
He's [Morsi's] not backing down and it's obvious that the army has been waiting for this opportunity.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed el-Beltagy urged his supporters on his Facebook page to “seek martyrdom in standing against this coup, which is the least that could be offered to the former martyrs" of the 2011 revolution.
Repeated calls to Beltagy rang unanswered when contacted by Al Jazeera.
‘Lost his mind'
Meanwhile, the opposition Dustour Party - led by former UN nuclear chief Mohamed el-Baradei - said the military's moves were not a coup, but an effort to save lives.
"We ask the army to protect the souls of Egyptians after Morsi lost his mind and incited bloodshed of Egyptians," Baradei said in a statement Wednesday.
Government opponents overflowed Tahrir Square in central Cairo on Tuesday, waving the country's flag and singing songs with occasional fireworks lighting the sky and army helicopters hovering above.
Less than 25 kilometres away, across from historic Cairo University, thousands of Morsi supporters waved white flags and chanted Islamic slogans in favour of his rule. Gunfire reverberated as violence broke out between the two sides.
Khaled el-Sherif is a spokesman for the Islamist group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. He said it was imperative for government supporters to demonstrate peacefully.
“This is why it is essential that the army stands at equal distances from everyone. We are not advocates of violence and have given our orders to stick to peaceful expression of opinions," Sherif told Al Jazeera.
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Several Muslim Brotherhood offices have been attacked across the country in recent days, similar to what happened when the uprising against Mubarak's National Democratic Party took hold in 2011.
"This is an extremely dangerous time," Paul Sullivan, Middle East expert at Georgetown University told Al Jazeera.
“One could hope that each group would just put the weapons down and help Egypt move forward - but I do not see that happening. Ideas and ideologies have hardened. The time for compromise and the real give-and-take of democratic development seems to have passed for now."