Activists outraged over unemployment and repression are keeping up the momentum of Egypt's largest anti-government protests in years, taking to the streets for the third straight day and issuing online calls for a mass rally in the capital after Friday prayers.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood expressed support for the demonstrations, raising the prospect that members of Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group could join Friday's demonstrations in mass. That would be a sharp boost to a broad-based grassroots movement that has been using mobile phones, social networks and other new technologies to organize suprisingly relentless calls for the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
Scores of protesters gathered in Cairo and other cities around Egypt throughout the day, a worrying sign for a regime so far unable to quash the unrest with the use of force and pledges of zero tolerance. In the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, east of Cairo, hundreds of protesters clashed with police who used tear gas and batons to disperse them.
The days of unrest have left at least six people dead, hundreds hurt and nearly 1,000 detained.
The protesters could be energized by the Thursday night return of Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and the country's top pro-democracy advocate. ElBaradei, who has emerged as a prime challenger to Mubarak's regime, told reporters at the Vienna airport that he was seeking regime change and ready to lead the opposition.
Mubarak's administration suffered another serious blow as Egypt's benchmark index recorded its biggest drop in over two years, bringing its year-to-date losses to almost 21 percent and hitting at the core of some of the regime's main accomplishments. The president, who has ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, has built his legacy continuing and expanding the open market policies launched by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s. While Egyptian officials have boasted about healthy economic growth figures, critics have argued that ambitious economic reforms have done little more than make the rich even richer while poverty, unemployment and prices rise unabated.
"The regime has not been listening," ElBaradei said. "If people, in particular young people, if they want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down. My priority right now ... is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition."
A spokesman for ElBaradei, Abdul-Rahman Samir, said the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog was expected to join protests planned for after the Friday prayers.
ElBaradei urged the Egyptian regime to exercise restraint with protesters expressing their "legitimate need" for an Egypt that is democratic and based on social justice.
ElBaradei returned to Egypt last year after living abroad for decades and has created a wave of support from reformists. But he so far insisted he would not run in this year's presidential election unless restrictions on who is eligible to contest the vote are lifted and far reaching political reforms are introduced.
ElBaradei, whose support base is primarily made up of youths, is seen as untainted by corruption. But his detractors say he may be lacking a thorough understanding of life here because of the decades he has lived abroad, first as an Egyptian diplomat and later with the United Nations.
The 82-year-old Mubarak, who has led Egypt for nearly 30 years, has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began Tuesday with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and a string of other cities, the culmination of a steady rise in discontent.
Mubarak has not said yet whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year. He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son Gamal to succeed him despite popular opposition. According to leaked U.S. memos, hereditary succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful military that provided all of Egypt's four presidents since the monarchy was toppled in the 1950s.
Social networking sites were abuzz with talk that Friday's rallies could be one of the biggest so far. Millions gather at mosques across the city for Friday prayers, providing organizers with a huge number of people already out on the streets to tap into.
The Muslim Brotherhood called on its website for protests to remain peaceful. It also called for new parliamentary elections under judicial supervision, the introduction of far-reaching reforms and the lifting of emergency laws in force since 1981.
"The movement of the Egyptian people that began January 25 and has been peaceful, mature and civilized must continue against corruption, oppression and injustice until its legitimate demands for reform are met," said the statement.
If Brotherhood supporters turn out in the wake of the group's endorsement of the protest movement, it could swell the numbers of demonstrators significantly. But the group has stopped short of an outright call for its backers to take to the streets.
"We are not pushing this movement, but we are moving with it. We don't wish to lead it but we want to be part of it," said Mohammed Mursi, a senior Brotherhood leader.
The government has banned all gatherings and police have fired rubber bullets, tear gas, and used water cannons to disperse crowds. They have also fired live ammunition in the air at time to warn people and there have been many scenes of riot police in helmets and shields charging crowds and beating people with batons and plainclothes police beating demonstrators with long sticks.
Still, Associated Press reporters saw scores of protesters outside the downtown Cairo offices of Egypt's lawyers' union, which has been one of the flashpoints of this week's unrest. About 100 people were also protesting outside police headquarters in the city of Suez east of Cairo, another hot spot.
There were two other small, peaceful protests by lawyers in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Toukh, north of Cairo.
Associated Press reporters Tarek el-Tablawy in Cairo and Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna contributed to this report.