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Egypt delays overseas vote on constitution as protesters gather near presidential palace

Hassan Ammar / AP

Egyptian protesters gather outside the presidential palace after they broke through a barbed wire barricade that was keeping them from getting closer to the presidential palace, in Cairo on Dec. 7, 2012.

Updated at 3:40 p.m. ET: CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters surged around the presidential palace on Friday and the opposition rejected President Mohammed Morsi's call for dialogue to end a crisis that has polarized the nation and sparked deadly clashes.

"The people want the downfall of the regime" and "Leave, leave," crowds chanted after bursting through barbed wire barricades and climbing on tanks guarding the palace of Egypt's first freely elected president. The crowds did not breach the palace walls or the gates.

Egypt's state news agency reported that the election committee had postponed the start of voting for Egyptians abroad until Wednesday, instead of Saturday as planned. It did not say whether this would affect the timing of voting in Egypt, but the move is an indication that the president may also order a delay in the referendum for Egypt's constitution, which was scheduled to start Dec. 15.



Egyptian opposition leaders on Friday rejected a national dialogue meeting that had been proposed by the Islamist president as a way out of a crisis that has polarized the country and provoked deadly clashes in the streets. But for the most part, the demonstrations remain peaceful, and riot police and the military nearby have not engaged the crowds.

Meanwhile, Morsi's supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood held emotional funerals for six of the movement's members killed in fighting around the presidential palace earlier in the week.

Morsi had offered few concessions in a speech late Thursday, refusing to retract a Nov. 22 decree in which he assumed sweeping powers or to cancel a referendum next week on a constitution newly drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

As protesters continue to gather near the presidential palace, Egyptian President Morsi announces a delay for Egyptians overseas to vote on a new constitution. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.

Instead, he called for a dialogue at his office on Saturday to chart a way forward for Egypt after the referendum, an idea that liberal, leftist and other opposition leaders rebuffed.

They have demanded that Morsi rescind the decree in which he temporarily shielded his decisions from judicial review and postpone the Dec. 15 referendum before any negotiations begin.

Analysis: Supporters of Islamist president push Egypt to tipping point

A leader of the main opposition coalition said Friday it would not join Morsi's dialogue: "The National Salvation Front is not taking part in the dialogue," said Ahmed Said, a leader of the coalition, who also heads the liberal Free Egyptians Party.

The Front's coordinator, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, urged "national forces" to shun what he called an offer based on "arm-twisting and imposition of a fait accompli."

Morsi's decree giving himself extra powers sparked the worst political crisis since he took office in June. The renewed unrest is dimming Egypt's hopes of stability and economic recovery after nearly two years of turmoil following the overthrow of veteran military strongman Hosni Mubarak.

It has exposed deeply contrasting visions for Egypt since the Arab Spring of revolution, one held by Islamists, who for decades were oppressed by the army and shut out of politics, and another by their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out opposing voices and restrict social freedoms.

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‘Red card’
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square in response to calls by the April 6 movement, which played a prominent role in igniting last year's revolt. It says it wants to show Morsi a "red card," using a soccer metaphor for his dismissal.

Elsewhere, thousands of Islamists gathered at Cairo's al-Azhar mosque for the funeral of "martyrs" killed in the clashes. "Our souls and blood, we sacrifice to Islam," they chanted.

Ayman Mohamed, 29, among a few protesters near the presidential palace, ringed with tanks and armored vehicles after violence that peaked there Wednesday night, said Morsi should scrap the draft constitution and heed popular demands.

"He is the president of the republic. He can't just work for the Muslim Brotherhood," Mohamed said of the eight-decade-old Islamist movement that propelled Morsi from obscurity to power.

More Egypt coverage from NBC News

President Barack Obama told Morsi on Thursday of his "deep concern" about casualties in this week's clashes, in which seven people were killed and 350 wounded. Obama said "dialogue should occur without preconditions," the White House said.

The State Department said Friday it "deplores" the violence between rival groups of demonstrators and is calling on all political leaders to tell their supporters the violence is "unacceptable," spokesman Mark Toner said.

"We also look to the government of Egypt to respect the freedoms of peaceful expression and assembly and to exercise restraint," Toner said.

The upheaval in the most populous Arab country worries the United States, which has given billions of dollars in military and other aid since Egypt made peace with Israel in 1979.

On the doorstep of Egypt's presidential palace, angry protesters accuse Mohamed Morsi of stealing power and imposing a constitution they consider illegal. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

 

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin, Catherine Chomiak and Reuters contributed to this report.

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