Egypt's military gave the ousted president his first contact with the outside world since removing him from office, allowing Europe's top diplomat to meet with Mohammed Morsi in his secret detention on Tuesday.
Despite the military's gesture, two days of efforts by mS Ashton to find a solution to Egypt's crisis hit a brick wall. Some voices in the military-backed government, including vice president Mohammed ElBaradei, have arisen hoping to avert a security crackdown on Morsi's supporters, but neither side has budged in their positions, which leave no visible room for compromise.
Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist allies say the only solution is for Egypt's first freely-elected president to be restored to office, and they have vowed to continue their street rallies until that happens. On Tuesday evening, they held new marches in Cairo outside the military intelligence offices and in other cities around the country.
The military and interim government, in turn, have rejected releasing Mr Morsi or other detained Brotherhood leaders, a step the Europeans have called for and that Islamists have said could improve the atmosphere.
Instead, they appear determined to prosecute detained Brotherhood members for crimes purportedly committed during Mr Morsi's presidency and for violence after his fall.
Looming over the deadlock is the possibility of security forces acting to clear the main pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo, where a crowd of his supporters have been camped out for nearly a month - a move that would almost certainly bring bloodshed.
Ms Ashton was invited by several parties in the stand-off, including Mr ElBaradei, in what appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to use her good offices with the Brotherhood to find a way to avert a showdown.
She said Mr Morsi was well and was keeping up with the latest developments in the country through television and newspapers. She added: "We were able to talk about the situation, and we were able to talk about the need to move forward."
The invite came after at least 80 protesters, mostly Morsi supporters, were killed on Saturday in clashes with security forces in one of the worst single crackdowns on a protest in Egypt's nearly three years of turbulence.