CAIRO -- Thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in competing protests for and against the nation's Islamist president Friday, two days ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations that many here are convinced will turn deadly.
By Friday evening, clashes that erupted between the rival sides in the coastal city of Alexandria had left one dead and dozens wounded, and attackers in Nile Delta cities had set fire to offices belonging to the president's backers in the Muslim Brotherhood.
An American was killed in Alexandria during the clashes Friday, news services reported. An unidentified medical source told the Associated Press that the man had been shot. Local media reported that the man had been stabbed while taking pictures of the clashes with his mobile phone. A U.S. Embassy official confirmed that the embassy had heard the reports and was seeking confirmation. It is unclear if the American is the same person who had elsewhere been reported dead.
In Cairo's Tahrir Square, President Mohamed Morsi's opponents carried photos of the president with an X over his face and promised that Friday was the beginning of his end in office.
At a rival demonstration across the city, Mr. Morsi's Brotherhood supporters swore that they would protect the elected president until their last breath. "Legitimacy is from the ballot box!" they chanted. Of Mr. Morsi's opponents, they yelled, "We will wipe the ground with them!"
All of Egypt seemed to be bracing for horrors that may come as opposition protesters prepare to call for Mr. Morsi's downfall in mass demonstrations Sunday, the one-year anniversary of his taking office.
A military spokesman told the state news agency Friday that the military is deploying nationwide to avoid "a 28 January 2011 scenario," referring to the deadliest day of Egypt's popular uprising.
The state-run newspaper al-Ahram reported that gold shops had closed in anticipation of unrest, and rumors circulated through wealthy and middle-class circles that ATMs would soon run out of cash. HSBC bank sent a text message notifying its customers that daily ATM withdrawals would be temporarily limited to 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $427.00.
The broad sense of impending doom marked a dramatic turnaround for this nation of 85 million, where one year ago, the first democratic presidential election in the country's history brought Mr. Morsi to power and was deemed a step toward modernity and free politics after six decades of military dictatorship.
But many Egyptians, including some who voted for Mr. Morsi, are angry about the way things have turned out. The president has failed to pull Egypt out of an economic quagmire or rectify its billions of dollars in debt, and Mr. Morsi's opponents say the president has focused instead on consolidating the power of the Brotherhood.
More than two years after revolution ended the 30-year reign of former President Hosni Mubarak, excitement for the democratic process has fizzled. Politics have torn bitter rifts through society, fueling a standoff pitting a growing number of liberal, secular and poor Egyptians against the president's Islamist supporters.
"Both parties think that they can win the game," said Khalil al-Anani, an Egypt expert at Britain's Durham University. In recent weeks, opposition group members have portrayed the Brotherhood as "occupiers" of the state, and extremist clerics have countered that the demonstrators are "infidels," he said.
"They've adopted a very extreme discourse," Mr. Anani said, "and there is no common ground."
Friday in Tahrir Square, thousands of anti-government protesters chanted to the thunder of drums.
Opposition leaders are demanding the removal of Mr. Morsi and his prime minister. They also say they want the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament dissolved, and the constitution -- drafted by an Islamist-majority committee, but ratified in a national referendum -- shelved in favor of a new drafting committee and early presidential elections.
For the pro-Morsi demonstrators who rallied outside a mosque near the presidential palace Friday, the protest served as a chance to defend the president against opponents who they say are trying to cheat the democratic process. "He will not be removed, except through the ballot box," said Eid Mohamed, a factory technician who had traveled to Cairo from the Nile Delta.
Some wore orange hard hats and carried hard plastic tubing -- "to defend ourselves," said factory manager Said Osman, who was also wearing protective glasses. Vendors hawked wrist and knee braces, as well as flashlights and laser pointers, on the assumption that protesters would stay throughout the night. An ambulance waited on standby. "Those who want to oust the president will have to walk over our dead bodies," Mr. Osman said.
The opposition activists in Tahrir Square spoke with similar vitriol. Many blamed the United States for allegedly supporting Mr. Morsi.