- Associated Press - Thursday, January 27, 2011

CAIRO | Violence escalated Thursday in two cities outside the capital, Cairo, where anti-government protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police.

Egypt’s top democracy advocate — Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei — returned to the country and declared he was ready to lead the campaign to oust longtime President Hosni Mubarak.

In the flash-point city of Suez, east of Cairo, witnesses said rioters — some wearing surgical masks to ward off tear gas — firebombed the main fire station and firefighters jumped out windows to escape the flames, as heavy black smoke billowed from the building.

In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, several hundred Bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old man. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it, damaging the walls.

Social networking sites were abuzz with talk that Friday’s rallies could be some of the biggest so far calling for the ouster of Mr. Mubarak after 30 years in power. 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.

Egyptian protesters clash with police in Suez. Activists protested for a third day as social networking sites called for a mass rally Friday. (Associated Press)
Egyptian protesters clash with police in Suez. Activists protested for a third ... more >

By Thursday evening, Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger services were interrupted, possibly a move by authorities to hamper protesters from organizing.

Egypt’s ruling party said it was ready for a dialogue with the public but offered no concessions to address demands for a solution to rampant poverty and political change heard in the country’s largest anti-government protests in years.

Safwat El-Sherif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and a longtime confidant of Mr. Mubarak‘s, was dismissive of the protesters during the first news conference by a senior ruling party figure since the unrest began.

“We are confident of our ability to listen. The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties,” he said. “But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority.”

The 82-year-old Mr. Mubarak 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.

Mr. Mubarak has not said yet whether he will run 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.

Mr. Mubarak has seen to it that no viable alternative to him has been allowed to emerge. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2005 by the NDP-dominated parliament have made it virtually impossible for independents like Mr. ElBaradei to run for president.

The White House said Thursday the protests are an opportunity for Mr. Mubarak to demonstrate his willingness to listen to his citizens and make “necessary” political reforms.

Mr. Mubarak’s administration suffered another serious blow Thursday when the stock market crashed. The benchmark index fell more than 10 percent by close, its biggest drop in more two years on the back of a 6 percent fall a day earlier.