Egypt's leaders struggle to regain control

Egypt's government struggled to regain control of an angry nation, inviting Islamist opponents to political talks as protesters demanding the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak battled with his supporters on the streets.

A bitter and bloody confrontation gripped central Cairo where armed government loyalists fought pro-democracy demonstrators intent on the downfall of President Mubarak, prompting the White House once more to urge negotiations.

In a move to try to calm down the chaos, Vice President Omar Suleiman said today the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organised opposition movement, had been invited to meet with the new government as part of a national dialogue with all parties.

An offer to talk to the banned group would have been unthinkable before protests erupted on January 25, indicating the giant strides made by the reformist movement. But scenting victory, they have refused negotiations until Mubarak goes.

The overture came after new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq apologised for the violence and the breakdown in law and order. Shafiq said he did not know who was responsible for the bloodshed that was blamed by protesters on undercover police.

"As officials and a state which must protect its sons, I thought it was necessary for me to apologise and to say that this matter will not be repeated," the prime minister said.

But as he tended to some of those gravely injured on the square, doctor Mohamed al-Samadi voiced anger: "They let armed thugs come and attack us. We refuse to go."

And in an opinion widely held by the protesters camped out on Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the doctor stated: "We can't let Mubarak stay eight months."

Doctors at the scene said at least 10 people were dead and 800 wounded after gunmen and stick-wielding Mubarak supporters attacked protesters on the streets for a tenth day to demand the 82-year-old president end his 30-year rule.

United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said up to 300 people may have died in the bloody uprising.

Close to the Egyptian Museum, home to 7,000 years of civilisation in the most populous Arab state, men fought with rocks, clubs and makeshift shields, as US-built tanks from the Western-funded army made sporadic efforts to intervene.

Away from the lenses of global media focused on Tahrir Square, a political battle was being fought with implications for competing Western and Islamist influence over the Middle East and its oil. European leaders joined the United States in urging their long-time Arab ally to start handing over power.

His government, newly appointed in a reshuffle that failed to appease protesters, stood by the president's insistence on Tuesday that he will go but only when his fifth term ends in September. Mubarak keeps portraying himself as a bulwark against anarchy, or a seizure of power by Islamist radicals.

The opposition won increasingly vocal support from Mubarak's long-time Western backers for a swifter handover of power.

"This process of transition must start now," the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said in a statement.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon added his voice.

They all echoed the message US President Barack Obama said he gave Mubarak in a phone call on Tuesday. US officials also condemned what they called a "concerted campaign to intimidate" journalists, after many were attacked by government loyalists.

Opposition leaders including the liberal figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood said again that Mubarak must go before they would negotiate.

Protesters, who numbered some 10,000 on Tahrir Square this afternoon, have called major demonstrations for tomorrow. Many formed human chains across roads to seal off the square.

This is a trial of strength in which the army has a crucial role as its commanders seek to preserve their institution's influence and wealth in the face of massive popular rejection of the old order, widely regarded as brutal, corrupt and wasteful.

The government, which rejected assumptions by foreign powers that it had orchestrated the attacks on demonstrators, seemed to be counting on winning over the sympathy of Egyptians feeling the pinch of unprecedented economic dislocation.

"I just want to see security back on the streets so that I can go on with my life," said Amira Hassan, 55, a Cairo teacher. "It makes no difference to me whether Mubarak stays or leaves."

Suleiman, seen as a possible interim successor to Mubarak, took up the theme of reconciliation, promising to release detained demonstrators and to punish those who fomented trouble.

He confirmed that Mubarak's businessman son Gamal would not run for president to succeed his father. Ten days ago, that would have been shock news. It surprised no one today.

The protesters in Tahrir Square, dominated now by a youthful hard core including secular middle-class graduates and mostly poorer Islamist activists from the Brotherhood, barely listened.

They were inspired by the example of Tunisia, where veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee last month.

But many other Egyptians have more respect for Mubarak and seem willing to let him depart more gracefully in due course.

Those supporting the calls for constitutional change and free elections saw the violence, unleashed yesterday by men they assume to be secret policemen and ruling party loyalists, as the desperation of a president who cannot count on his army.

It was a "stupid, desperate move", said Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist and leading opposition figure. "This will not put an end to the protests," he said. "This is not the Tahrir Square revolution, it is a general uprising."

Though less numerous than earlier in the week, there were demonstrations in Suez and Ismailia, industrial cities where inflation and unemployment have fuelled the sort of dissent that hit Tunisia and which some believe could ripple in a domino effect across other autocratic Arab states.

There were also protests in the port city of Alexandria.

Many analysts see the army seeking to preserve its own position by engineering a smooth removal of Mubarak, a former air force commander. Its course is unclear. On Monday it gave protesters heart by pledging to let them demonstrate.

But on Wednesday, troops stood by as Mubarak supporters charged Tahrir Square on horseback and camels, lashing out at civilians. After dark, several demonstrators were shot dead.

Only this morning did soldiers set up a clear buffer zone around the square to separate the factions. But that did not prevent new clashes, as groups pelted each other with rocks.

Many believe Mubarak's efforts to hang on may create strains within the army, which may seek to cut short the confrontation.

"There is a real threat to the integrity of the armed forces, the longer this goes on," said Faysal Itani of Exclusive Analysis. "The pressure on the army must be intense to put him on a plane or in a villa ... I'd give him seven to 10 days."

Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says revolution in Cairo could create an Iranian-style theocracy.

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