The protests that began in Egypt on Tuesday were showing no signs of letup on Thursday night, and the country was braced for what are expected to be massive demonstrations on Friday as Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Cairo to help try to bring down President Hosni Mubarak.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has met with Mubarak on numerous occasions since coming to power in 2009 and views him as a key player in the region and the diplomatic process, met on Thursday with senior defense and intelligence officials to evaluate the swiftly moving developments.

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Israel’s relationship with ElBaradei during his years as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency can only be described as “tense.”

Jerusalem continued to maintain a strict silence on the situation in Egypt, with ministers asked not to publicly comment on the events, and Netanyahu not even relating to the issue in private meetings.

Yemen, meanwhile, was the latest Arab state to be hit by mass anti-government protests, with tens of thousands of Yemenis taking to the streets in nationwide protests, demanding the president step down, taking inspiration from the popular revolt in Tunisia and vowing to continue until their US-backed government falls.

While the situation in Yemen was troubling to Israel because the impoverished country has become a haven for al-Qaida, Jerusalem’s primary concern right now was on developments in Egypt, officials said.

The officials said it was much too early to assess the significance of the developments in Egypt for Israel and the diplomatic process, because no one was comfortable predicting how things would turn out. However, it was clear that prolonged instability in Egypt would have an enormous impact on the region and Israel.

No one thought Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali would get on a plane and leave the country overnight, one official said. “These things are tough to predict.”

Violence escalated outside Cairo throughout Thursday. In the flashpoint city of Suez, east of the capital, rioters — some wearing surgical masks or scarves over their faces to ward off tear gas — attacked the main fire station downtown and looted it before torching it with firebombs.

Firefighters jumped out of windows to escape the flames, as heavy black smoke billowed from the burning building.

In the northern Sinai area of Sheikh Zuweid, several hundred Beduin and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old boy.

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

Safwat El-Sherif, the secretarygeneral 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 they began.

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

The 82-year-old Mubarak has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began on 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 military.

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 almost impossible for independents like ElBaradei to run for president.

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,” he 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.”

When ElBaradei touched down in Egypt, he was greeted by a small group of family and friends and reporters.

“It’s a critical time in the life of Egypt, and I have to participate with the Egyptian people,” he said.

Mubarak’s administration suffered another serious blow on Thursday when the stock market crashed. The benchmark index fell more than 10 percent by the close, its biggest drop in more two years on the back of a 6% 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 and tear gas, and used water cannons to disperse crowds. They have also fired live ammunition in the air to warn people and there have been many scenes of riot police in helmets and shields charging crowds and beating people with batons, and of plainclothes police beating demonstrators with long sticks.

In Suez on Thursday, the protesters stoned lines of helmeted riot police holding shields, who also fired back with rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas. Debris and rocks littered the streets. Police said 30 people were injured in the melee.

In the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, east of Cairo, hundreds of people clashed with police who used tear gas and batons to disperse them.

In another boost to the protest movement, the country’s largest opposition group — the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — threw its support behind the demonstrations. If the group’s backers join the protests on Friday, 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.

“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.

A US administration official, meanwhile, said the White House was prepared to step up its criticism of Mubarak if the government intensified its crackdown.

President Barack Obama privately pressed Mubarak in a telephone call last week to embrace democratic changes, said the official, who requested anonymity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Wednesday said Mubarak has an “important opportunity” to enact economic, political and social reforms.

“We call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence,” she told reporters in Washington. “We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests nor block communications, including on social media sites.”

The message that White House officials want Mubarak to hear is that he should seize the protests as an opportunity to reform state institutions, and not use them as a pretext to strengthen his grip on power, the administration official said on Wednesday.

In the streets of Sanaa in Yemen, meanwhile, protesters shouted, “No delays, no delays, the time for departure has come,” calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for nearly 32 years. Saleh’s government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income – oil – could run dry in a decade.

The protesters were led by opposition members and youth activists in four parts of the capital, Sanaa. In the southern provinces of Dali and Shabwa, riot police used batons to disperse people, while thousands took to the streets in al-Hudaydah province, an al-Qaida stronghold along the Red Sea coast.

The protests calmed by early evening, but organizers said there was more to come on Friday.

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