Embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak yesterday met the military commanders who could yet determine his future, as Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said that Washington wanted an "orderly transition" to democratic government in his country.
Unprecedented street protests in Cairo and other cities continued for a sixth day, unabated by President Mubarak's appointment on Saturday of his intelligence chief and close ally Omar Suleiman as vice-president and – perhaps – his designated successor.
As the President and his inner circle plotted their survival, opposition groups threw their support behind Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear inspector, who returned to Cairo last week to offer himself as a figurehead for the protesters. Speaking in Tahrir Square last night, Mr ElBaradei – seen in some quarters as a possible interim leader of Egypt should Mr Mubarak fall – said: "You have taken back your rights and what we have begun cannot go back."
His speech was met with chants of "Down with Mubarak" by a crowd that disobeyed a curfew for a fourth night. "We have one main demand: the end of the regime and the beginning of a new stage, a new Egypt," Mr ElBaradei said in his address.
The Egyptian President showed every sign of struggling to maintain his grip on power, as the US offered evacuation flights for its citizens still in the country and called on all Americans to consider leaving as soon as they could safely do so.
The Egyptian military reinforced its presence in the capital in an apparent show of strength, which included deploying military aircraft over Tahrir Square, where thousands of protesters again congregated to demand that the 82-year-old President stand down.
Mrs Clinton, who toured the Sunday talk shows in Washington, told Fox News: "We want to see an orderly transition so that no one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government. We also don't want to see some takeover that would lead not to democracy but to oppression and the end of the aspirations of the Egyptian people."
She insisted on NBC that the US wanted "free and fair" elections.
Mr Mubarak meanwhile held talks with Mr Suleiman, his Defence Minister, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Chief of Staff, Sami al-Anan, and other senior commanders. Mr Suleiman's appointment has been seen as a belated acknowledgement that Mr Mubarak's son, Gamal, would be an unacceptable choice as president.
Meanwhile, Mr Mubarak publicly ordered his new cabinet to preserve subsidies, control inflation, tackle corruption and provide more jobs in an effort to show he understands his citizens' complaints. In a letter to his new Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, read on state television, he stressed "the need for moving seriously and effectively towards more political reforms, in the constitution and legislation, via extensive dialogue with the parties... allowing their wider participation". He also criticised the use of "religious slogans" from protesters, a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group.
Reuters reported protesters shouting: "Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans." Others chanted: "Mubarak, Mubarak, the plane awaits."
More than 100 people are reported to have been killed so far, many in clashes with a deeply unpopular police force ,which was eventually ordered off the streets at the end of last week, with the more respected army gradually assuming greater control. One consequence of the police withdrawal appears to be a spate of looting and lawlessness.
Though apparently inspired by the uprising that propelled Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, the protests have also been fuelled by the conduct of parliamentary elections in November last year, seen widely as having been rigged to bring parliament under President Mubarak's virtually total control.
Turkey said it was sending three flights to remove 750 of its citizens. A scheduled El Al flight due from Cairo last night was said to be fully booked with Israelis leaving the capital. In a rare Sabbath flight on Saturday, Israel flew back families of its diplomats.