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Morsi flees Egypt's presidential palace as 'last warning' protesters battle cops

Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi reportedly left the palace via the back door to avoid further confrontation, as crowds vented their fury at Morsi's decree granting him nearly unlimited powers. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Updated at 7:58 a.m. ET: CAIRO -- Egyptian police battled thousands of protesters outside President Mohammed Morsi's palace in Cairo on Tuesday, prompting the Islamist leader to leave the building, presidency sources said.

Officers fired tear gas at up to 10,000 demonstrators angered by Morsi's drive to hold a referendum on a new constitution on December 15. The Associated Press reported that some protesters broke through barbed wire around the building and hurled chairs and rocks at retreating police on Tuesday night.

The crowds had gathered in what organizers had dubbed "last warning" protests against Morsi, who infuriated opponents with a November 22 decree that expanded his powers. "The people want the downfall of the regime," the demonstrators chanted.

"The president left the palace," a presidential source, who declined to be named, told Reuters. A security source at the presidency also said the president had departed.

Morsi returned to work at the presidential palace on Wednesday morning, an aide later told Reuters.

The Muslim Brotherhood also called for a rally backing Morsi outside the palace on Wednesday and leftists planned a counter-demonstration, raising fears of clashes in a crisis over a disputed push for a new constitution. 

Morsi ignited a storm of unrest in his bid to prevent a judiciary still packed with appointees of ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak from derailing a troubled political transition.


Egyptian protesters chant slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood during a rally in front of the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday.

Facing the gravest crisis of his six-month-old tenure, the Islamist president has shown no sign of buckling under pressure.

On Tuesday, riot police at the palace faced off against activists chanting "leave, leave" and holding Egyptian flags with "no to the constitution" written on them. Protesters had assembled near mosques in northern Cairo before marching toward the palace.

Supporters of Islamist president push Egypt to tipping point

"Our marches are against tyranny and the void constitutional decree and we won't retract our position until our demands are met," said Hussein Abdel Ghany, a spokesman for an opposition coalition of liberal, leftist and other disparate factions.

Protesters later surrounded the palace, with some climbing on gates at the rear to look down into the gardens.

As protesters clashes, President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt announced a referendum on a proposed constitution. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

At one point, people clambered onto a police armored vehicle and waved flags, while riot police huddled nearby.

The Health Ministry said 18 people had been injured in clashes next to the palace, according to the state news agency. 

Civil disobedience
Despite the latest protests, there has been only a limited response to opposition calls for a mass campaign of civil disobedience in the Arab world's most populous country and cultural hub, where many people yearn for a return to stability.

A few hundred protesters gathered earlier near Morsi's house in a suburb east of Cairo, chanting slogans against his decree and against the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the president emerged to win a free election in June. Police closed the road to stop them from coming any closer, a security official said.

Mona El-Tahawy explains why President Mohammed Morsi's recent decree is very insulting to many Egyptians who demonstrated against Former President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Opposition groups have accused Morsi of making a dictatorial power grab to push through a constitution drafted by an assembly dominated by his supporters, with a referendum planned for December 15.

Liberals, Christians left out as Islamists back Egypt's draft constitution

They say the draft constitution does not reflect the interests of Egypt's liberals and other groups, an accusation dismissed by Islamists who insist it is a balanced document.

Egypt's most widely-read independent newspapers did not publish on Tuesday in protest at Morsi's "dictatorship". Banks closed early to let staff go home safely in case of trouble.

Abdelrahman Mansour in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the cradle of the anti-Mubarak revolt, said: "The presidency believes the opposition is too weak and toothless. Today is the day we show them the opposition is a force to be reckoned with."

Analysis: Crisis tests Egyptians' constitution

But after winning post-Mubarak elections and pushing the Egyptian military out of the political driving seat it held for decades, the Islamists sense their moment has come to shape the future of Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally whose 1979 peace treaty with Israel is a cornerstone of Washington's Middle East policy.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, who staged a huge pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Saturday, are confident enough members of the judiciary will be available to oversee the mid-December referendum, despite calls by some judges for a boycott.

"The crisis we have suffered for two weeks is on its way to an end, and very soon, God willing," Saad al-Katatni, leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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