Updated Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 08:24 AM
CAIRO — Thousands of opposition protesters converged on Egypt's presidential palace late Friday, breaking through barbed-wire barricades and chanting slogans against President Mohammed Morsi, in defiance of his call Thursday for a national dialogue to bridge the country's expanding political divide.
Opposition leaders rejected Morsi's invitation to meet for discussions Saturday after more than two weeks of political crisis that has pitted the president and his Islamist backers against a broad coalition of liberals and secularists.
Morsi's critics said his speech to the nation Thursday and moves by his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood on Friday did more to fan the flames than quell them.
The competing rhetoric and scenes of defiance underscored how the population has been polarized as it struggles to define the balance of power in the country nearly two years after the forces now opposing each other joined hands in the mass uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Amid calls for a delay to the scheduled Dec. 15 vote on a contentious draft constitution, Egypt's High Election Commission said Friday that it would postpone overseas voting on the charter. The move raised hopes among some that Morsi might be moving toward making concessions.
But a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Morsi, said a delay in next week's vote would be possible only if the opposition heeded the president's invitation to talk.
A decree by Morsi last month that gave him the power to legislate without oversight yielded an unlikely alliance of disorganized opposition groups, including liberals, human-rights activists, Christians and old-regime loyalists.
They differ on many things, including the concessions they hope to extract from Morsi and whether to vote against the constitution or boycott the referendum altogether if it goes to a vote as planned. But they agree that Egypt's first democratically elected president has drastically overstepped his authority — and that protest is the only way to turn him around.
Some of the protesters who massed outside the palace Friday said they had voted for Morsi — giving him "a chance to rule" — but the president's recent actions had left them believing he was no longer fit to lead Egypt and that the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails could never again be trusted.
"He said he was the president of Egypt. But the truth is he's the president for the Muslim Brotherhood," said Amr al-Tahry, 20, a student at Egypt's naval academy who said he voted for Morsi. "I was willing to try trusting the Muslim Brotherhood. Now — no, never."
In the wake of violence Wednesday that left seven people dead and more than 400 injured, the military's elite Republican Guard — charged with protecting the palace — deployed tanks and armored vehicles around the complex Thursday and ordered protesters to remain outside the perimeter.
But Friday night, thousands in the crowd breached that perimeter, and witnesses said the Guard withdrew behind the palace walls.
Analysts said the military has little interest in getting involved in either side of the conflict but has every interest in seeing the constitution approved. The charter, passed by an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly, would solidify the military's power and privilege to a degree that surpasses even that of the Mubarak era.
An alliance of prominent opposition figures, calling itself the National Salvation Front, said Friday that the president's invitation for a meeting Saturday failed to meet "the principles of real and serious negotiations" and displayed "the complete disregard" for the opposition's demands.
Opposition leaders said they would not negotiate with Morsi until he cancels his Nov. 22 decree and calls off the Dec. 15 referendum on the draft constitution, which they said fails to enshrine the rights of women and minorities, and puts too few limits on the president's power.
Increasingly, the opposition has called on Morsi to step down. Some protesters pointed to disarray within his administration this week, including the resignation of several presidential advisers, as indicators that the opposition would eventually have its way.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood also turned out Friday to show support for Morsi. Thousands gathered outside Cairo's al-Azhar mosque to hear a sermon by the Brotherhood's leader and supreme guide, Mohammed Badie.
HASSAN AMMAR / AP
Egyptian protesters gather outside the presidential palace Friday evening after breaking through barbed-wire barricades to get closer.