* Riot police use teargas on protesters near Mursi's palace
* President leaves premises as a precaution
* Muslim Brotherhood's party leader says crisis will end
By Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad
CAIRO, Dec 4 Egyptian police battled thousands
of protesters outside President Mohamed Mursi's palace in Cairo
on Tuesday, prompting the Islamist leader to leave the building,
presidency sources said.
Officers fired teargas at up to 10,000 demonstrators angered
by Mursi's drive to hold a referendum on a new constitution on
Dec. 15. Some broke through police lines around his palace and
protested next to the perimeter wall.
The crowds had gathered nearby in what organisers had dubbed
"last warning" protests against Mursi, who infuriated opponents
with a Nov. 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.
Mursi 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.
Facing the gravest crisis of his six-month-old tenure, the
Islamist president has shown no sign of buckling under pressure.
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 towards the palace.
"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.
At one point, people clambered onto a police armoured
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.
YEARNING FOR STABILITY
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 Mursi'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.
Opposition groups have accused Mursi of making a dictatorial
power grab to push through a constitution drafted by an assembly
dominated by his supporters, with a referendum planned for Dec.
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 Mursi'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."
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-Mursi 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
"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.
Cairo stocks closed up 3.5 percent as investors took heart
at what they saw as prospects for a return to stability after
the referendum in a country whose divisions have only widened
since a mass uprising toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011.
Mohamed Radwan, at Pharos Securities brokerage, said the
Supreme Judicial Council's agreement to supervise the vote had
generated confidence that it would go ahead "despite all the
noise and demonstrations that might take place until then".
"NO WAY PERFECT"
Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, a technocrat with Islamist
sympathies, said in an interview with CNN: "We certainly hope
that things will quiet down after the referendum is completed."
He said the constitution was "in no way a perfect text" that
everyone had agreed to, but that a "majority consensus" favoured
moving forward with the referendum in 11 days' time.
The Muslim Brotherhood, now tasting power via the ballot box
for the first time in eight decades of struggle, wants to
safeguard its gains and appears ready to override street
protests by what it regards as an unrepresentative minority.
It is also determined to prevent the courts, which have
already dissolved the Islamist-led elected lower house of
parliament, from further obstructing their blueprint for change.
Despite charges that they are anti-Islamist and politically
motivated, judges say they are following legal codes in their
rulings. Experts say some political changes rushed through in
the past two years have been on shaky legal ground.
A Western diplomat said the Islamists were counting on a
popular desire for restored normality and economic stability.
"All the messages from the Muslim Brotherhood are that a
vote for the constitution is one for stability and a vote
against is one for uncertainty," he said, adding that the cost
of the strategy was a "breakdown in consensus politics".