Tens of thousands of opponents and supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi flooded the streets of Cairo as competing protests turned lethal on Sunday.
Violent clashes left three dead, the country's minister of health said.
Suspected pro-Morsi Islamists on a motorbike opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in the southern city of Assiut, killing one and wounding seven, security officials told The Associated Press.
Protesters infuriated by that killing then marched to the office of the Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, where they were met with a hail of bullets, leaving two people dead, according to the AP. An anti-Morsi protester was murdered earlier in the town of Beni Suef, the AP reported.
Hours after the prearranged protests began, swarms of anti-government demonstrators were still massed in Tahrir Square, crucible of the 2011 so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings that overthrew autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
“The people want the fall of the regime!” they chanted. Many waved national flags – only this time not in defiance of an aging dictator but as a form of dissent against their first-ever elected leader, who only assumed office a year ago to the day.
Meanwhile, legions of Morsi’s allies remained outside the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque near the Ittihadiya presidential palace. Some wore military-style regalia and carried shields and clubs, purportedly as a defense against potential attacks from the opposition, according to the AP.
Not including the casualties from Sunday, at least seven people, including an American college student in Maryland, had already been killed in clashes between opposition protesters and Morsi-allied groups in the last week.
Sunday’s protests represent the peak of a year of turbulence and turmoil in which Egypt has been rocked by scores of political crises, dozens of bloody clashes and a declining economy that has set off a spate of power outages, fuel shortages, skyrocketing prices and routine lawlessness and crime.
The opposing sides of the conflict are representative of the bitter political, social, and religious divisions in contemporary Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other hard-line groups form the backbone of the pro-Morsi camp. Many of Morsi's proponents have characterized the protests as a conspiracy by Mubarak's political allies to return the former leader to power.
The anti-government movement brings together secular and liberal Egyptians, moderate Muslims and Christians, and wide swaths of the general public the opposition says has rejected the Islamists and their regime.
Liberal leaders say nearly half all Egyptian voters — some 22 million people — have signed a petition calling for new elections.
"We all feel we're walking on a dead-end road and that the country will collapse," said Mohamed El-Baradei, a former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and now liberal party leader in his homeland.
Despite mounting pressure, Morsi did not buckle in advance of the preplanned protests, dismissing the widespread dissent as an undemocratic assault on his electoral legitimacy, Reuters reported.
But he also proposed to make changes to the new, Islamist-inflected constitution, saying he was not personally responsible for controversial clauses on religious authority, which stirred up liberal animosity and triggered the popular revolt, according to Reuters.
For many Egyptians, though, all the turmoil that has followed the Arab Spring has just made life harder. Standing by his lonely barrow at an eerily quiet downtown Cairo street market, 23-year-old Zeeka was afraid more violence was coming.
"We're not for one side or the other," he told Reuters. "What's happening now in Egypt is shameful. There is no work, thugs are everywhere ... I won't go out to any protest.
"It's nothing to do with me. I'm a tomato guy."
Visiting sub-Saharan Africa, President Barack Obama has cautioned that rancor in the largest Arab country could rattle the region.
"Every party has to denounce violence," Obama said in Pretoria, South Africa, on Saturday. "We'd like to see the opposition and President Morsi engage in a more constructive conversation about how they move their country forward because nobody is benefiting from the current stalemate."
Washington has evacuated non-essential personnel and redoubled security at its diplomatic missions in Egypt.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.