CAIRO (Reuters) - Activists trying to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak set fire to buildings in the eastern city of Suez overnight and played cat-and-mouse with police on a third day of protests against his 30-year rule.
Prominent reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei said from Vienna shortly before his return to Egypt to join in demonstrations that it was time for Mubarak to step aside.
"He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire," ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, told Reuters. "Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them."
Egyptians torched a police post in Suez early on Thursday in response to the killing of three demonstrators earlier in the week, a Reuters witness said. Police fled the post before the protesters burned it using petrol bombs.
On Wednesday evening, people in Suez had set a government building and another police post on fire and tried to burn down a local office of Egypt's ruling party.
Those fires were all put out before they engulfed the buildings but dozens more protesters gathered in front of the partially burned police post later on Thursday morning.
A Twitter entry called for a march at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT) on Thursday in Giza, an area of Cairo.
ElBaradei's arrival could spur protesters who have no figurehead, although many activists resent his absences in recent months.
The anti-government protests, unprecedented during Mubarak's rule of a state that is a key U.S. ally, have seen police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and petrol bombs.
One policeman has been killed in Cairo in the clashes, which erupted on Tuesday, inspired by a popular revolt in Tunisia. Thousands of protesters also took to the streets in Yemen on Thursday to demand a change of government there.
Protesters in all three countries complain about surging prices, a lack of jobs and authoritarian rule that has relied on heavy-handed security to keep dissenting voices quiet.
Al-Arabiya television said on Thursday Egypt's general prosecutor had charged 40 protesters with trying to "overthrow the regime".
A page on Facebook announcing Friday's protest gained 55,000 supporters in less than 24 hours.
"Egypt's Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom," wrote an activist on Facebook, which alongside sites like Twitter have been key tools to rally people onto the streets.
In central Cairo, demonstrators have burned tyres and hurled stones at police. And in the early hours of Thursday, small groups of protesters were still assembling in both Cairo and Suez and being chased off by police.
In Suez, burnt car tyres, broken wood and torn down sign posts cluttered the streets. Windows at local fast food chains were smashed.
Egypt's stock exchange halted trading on Thursday morning after the benchmark index slid more than 6 percent for a second day. The Egyptian pound has fallen to its lowest level in six-years against the U.S. dollar.
Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, whose resignation is being demanded by the protesters, has dismissed the demonstrations.
"Egypt's system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands," he told Kuwait's al-Rai newspaper, according to the newspaper's website.
"Our country is stable and not shaken by such actions."
Witnesses say demonstrators have been dragged away, beaten and shoved into police vans. The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that 500 had been arrested. An independent coalition of lawyers said at least 1,200 were detained.
Sometimes police have scrambled to find the means to respond to the protests. In one spot in Cairo, angry police rammed sticks into pavements to break up concrete to use as projectiles to hurl at protesters. But protesters have repeatedly regrouped.
ElBaradei launched a campaign for change last year, raising hopes his international stature could galvanise the opposition. But many activists have since complained that he should have spent more time on the street than abroad.
"I am going back to Cairo and back onto the streets, because, really, there is no choice. You go out there with this massive number of people and you hope things will not turn ugly, but so far, the regime does not seem to have gotten that message," he said in remarks on U.S. website The Daily Beast.
He said many Egyptians would no longer tolerate Mubarak's government even for a transitional period, and dismissed as "obviously bogus" the suggestion that authoritarian Arab leaders like Mubarak were the only bulwark against Islamic extremism.
'NO RELIGIOUS DIRECTION'
"If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organise to elect a government that is modern and moderate," he said.
Web activists seem to have acted largely independently of more organised opposition movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, widely seen as having Egypt's biggest grassroots network with its social and charity projects.
"Participation has no religious direction, it is an Egyptian movement," wrote an activist about Friday's planned protest.
Washington, which views Mubarak as a vital ally and bulwark of Middle Eastern peace, has called for calm and, increasingly, urged Egypt to make reforms to meet the protesters demands.
"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
An Islamist insurgency challenged Mubarak in the 1990s and was crushed by his vast security apparatus. But this is the first time since taking office in 1981 that he has faced such widespread protests from Egypt's large, youthful population.
"The people want the regime to fall," protesters chanted.
Egypt's population of some 80 million is growing by 2 percent a year. Two thirds of the population is under 30, and that age group accounts for 90 percent of the jobless. About 40 percent live on less than $2 a day, and a third are illiterate.
A presidential election is due in September. Egyptians assume that the 82-year-old Mubarak plans either to remain in control or hand power to his son Gamal, 47. Father and son both deny that Gamal is being groomed for the job.
(Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez; Writing by Edmund Blair, Peter Graff and Philippa Fletcher, editing by Noah Barkin)
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