CAIRO — Egypt's ruling party said Thursday 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.
RELATED:Egypt's protests enter 3rd day, ominous for regimeGallery: 6 killed, 1000s arrested in Egypt protests
At the same time, the grass roots protest movement was getting a double boost likely to energize the largest anti-government demonstrations Egypt has seen in years. Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and the country's top pro-democracy advocate, was returning to the country Thursday night and declared he was ready to lead the protests. The country's largest opposition group — the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — also threw its support behind the demonstrations.
Rioting and protests erupted for a third straight day and social networking sites were abuzz with talk that Friday's rallies could be some of the biggest so far calling for the ouster of President Hosni 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.
Safwat El-Sherif, the secretary general of the National Democratic Party
and a longtime confidant of Mubarak, was dismissive of the protesters
at the first news conference by a senior ruling party figure since the
"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."
Mubarak not seen in public since protests began
The 82-year-old 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.
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 US memos, hereditary
succession also does not meet with the approval of the powerful
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 has made it virtually impossible for
independents like ElBaradei to run for president.
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.
The protesters have already achieved a major feat by sustaining their
demonstrations for three days in the face of a brutal police crackdown.
Seven people have been killed, hundreds hurt and nearly 1,000 detained.
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.
Thousands protest in Cairo, other cities
Scores of protesters gathered in Cairo and other cities Thursday. 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.
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
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. In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, clashes
between several hundred beduin and police left a 17-year-old man dead.
ElBaradei, who has emerged as a prime challenger to Mubarak's rule, told
reporters at the Vienna airport on his way back to Egypt that he was
seeking regime change and ready to lead the opposition.
"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 authorities 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.
His support base is primarily made up of youths and he 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.
Muslim Brotherhood expresses support for protests
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood also 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. If they do, it could swell the numbers on the streets
significantly. But the group has stopped short of an outright call for
its backers to turn out.
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 Brotherhood made a surprisingly strong showing in parliamentary
elections in 2005, when it won 20 percent of seats and served as the
main opposition bloc in the legislature. In the latest parliament
elections held in November, the Brotherhood failed to win even a single
seat. It decried widespread fraud by the ruling party and boycotted the
The vote gave the ruling party all but a small fraction of the chamber's
518 seats, an outcome that analysts say chipped away further at the
regime's legitimacy and likely contributed to the discontent being
vented on the streets this week.
"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.
"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 stock market crash, which brought year-to-date losses to almost 21
percent, hit at the core of some of the regime's main accomplishments.
The president 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.