CAIRO // Thousands poured into Tahrir Square after Friday prayers and marched to the presidential palace yesterday to demand the departure of the Egyptian leader, Mohammed Morsi.
The Republican Guard defended the palace behind wire fences with armoured vehicles and tanks, as crowds cried for "the fall of the regime", echoing calls from the uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
Protesters broke through barricades on their "Ultimatum Friday" and were at the palace walls last night.
Not far from the demonstration, supporters of Mr Morsi decried a conspiracy against Islam at a funeral for several Muslim Brotherhood members killed in clashes earlier in the week.
Mr Morsi had asked in a speech late on Thursday night for protesters to demonstrate peacefully and join a dialogue scheduled for today at 12.30, but opposition forces said yesterday they would not take part.
They said they would not negotiate with the president until he rescinded a November 22 declaration giving himself powers beyond the oversight of the judiciary, and cancelled a referendum on the new constitution set for a week from today.
The commission overseeing the referendum on the constitution announced that voting for expatriates would be delayed from today to Wednesday.
Opposition groups and protesters also sharply criticised Mr Morsi's speech, in which he warned of a "fifth column" trying to derail the country's democratic transition by providing arms, funding and support to violent groups.
His use of "terrorism" and "conspiracy" drew comparisons to Mubarak's final speeches last year, where he beckoned for calm and claimed foreign countries were instigating violent protests.
The worsening political deadlock has convinced opposition forces to begin searching for more powerful ways to force Mr Morsi to back down, including labour strikes, politicians said.
"The strategy now is to gradually push for a general strike in Egypt to make Morsi to meet our demands," said Emad Gad, a leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which is a part of the umbrella opposition group called the National Salvation Front.
Mr Morsi's offer was regarded as hollow as he did not agree to freeze his declaration or the referendum before talks begin, Mr Gad said.
"There was no contact with the heads of the opposition political parties and he didn't meet any of our preconditions," he said.
In Tahrir Square, an opposition leader said his alliance would not fall in line with Mr Morsi's calls.
"After the bloodshed, we will not put our hands in the hands of those who killed new martyrs," said Hamdeen Sabahi, a Nasserite former presidential candidate.
The opposition groups face a stark challenge in coming week. Their disparate groups and political parties have managed to present a unified stand against the president's course of action, but they are opposed by a large segment of Egypt that supports the president and refuses any changes except those made through voting.
The growing ire of Islamists over what they see as an attempt by liberals and secularists to force out a legitimately elected president was made clear at Al Azhar mosque yesterday. There thousands of Mr Morsi's supporters turned out to hear firebrand speeches from clerics and mourn the death of several Muslim Brotherhood members who died in clashes on Wednesday night. The Brotherhood has said five of the six people killed in those fights were members, but only three coffins were visible at the funeral.
"We are on the path of martyrdom to defend this nation," said Mohammed El Beltagy, a top Brotherhood organiser, in a speech from a podium near the mosque.
Echoing the president's claims about a conspiracy against Egypt, he said: "The people will not remain quiet about these crimes, no matter who committed them... Political work does not know bird shot, molotovs, live ammunition. These are crimes and we will take those responsible to court."
Mr Morsi's supporters expressed exasperation with the opposition movement, which they said was trying to force the views of the minority on the majority.
"The ballot boxes are what decides," said Mohamed Mahmoud, 30, a lawyer from Cairo. "The other side is against voting because they are scared, not because they are opposed to any article in the constitution, but of the Islamic project."
The opposition's move toward a general strike reflects the dwindling options left for the National Salvation Front. The group has not agreed on whether to push for people to vote down the constitution in the referendum on December 15 or boycott voting altogether.
Either way, it faces a strong possibility that Egyptians will pass the constitution in the referendum because of the powerful network of groups supporting the president. In every election since Mubarak resigned last year, the Brotherhood's candidates have trounced their opposition. The second most powerful political group has been the hardline Islamists known as Salafists, who have backed Mr Morsi in the current crisis.
If the constitution passed, it would end Mr Morsi's expanded powers but leave Egypt with a national charter that the opposition believes is the precursor to a strong-armed, Islamist state for decades to come.
The military, which played a pivotal role in protecting the uprising against Mubarak's security forces last year, has so far stayed out of the political deadlock. Retired Major General Sameh Seif Al Yazal, an adviser to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said on Wednesday the military would not intervene without an order from the president, but added that the scenario was extremely unlikely.
With additional reporting by Stephen Kalin