CAIRO // Mohammed ElBaradei joined tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo last night and told them to be "patient", that they were "beginning a new era".
The Nobel Peace laureate was named by Egyptian opposition groups, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, as the man they want to negotiate with the president Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Earlier in the day Mr ElBaradei called for Mr Mubarak to leave office "today" to make way for a national unity government. "It is loud and clear from everybody in Egypt," he said in a TV interview. "He needs to leave today … to be followed by a smooth transition to a national unity government, to be followed by all the measures set in place for a free and fair election."
As warplanes and helicopters circled over the thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators gathered for a sixth day in Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt's capital, Mr Mubarak held meetings with key military leaders.
The president visited Egypt's central military command, where he met his newly appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman, the military intelligence chief, the departing defence minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and the chief of staff, Sami Anan. Mr Mubarak, a former air force chief, appeared to be seeking the army's support as he faces down the revolt that protesters say will continue until he steps down.
Last night the president extended the nightly curfew by a further hour, to begin at 3pm, and ordered riot police back on to the streets.
In Washington, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, increased the pressure on Mr Mubarak when she called for "an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people", stopping short of asking him to resign but laying the groundwork for his departure.
The US Embassy in Cairo told its citizens in Egypt to consider leaving as soon as possible, and said it had authorised the voluntary departure of dependants and non-emergency employees, a display of Washington's escalating concern about the stability of its closest Arab ally.
A number of other foreign governments, private tour groups and corporations also began trying to evacuate their clients and expatriate employees, but dozens of flights were cancelled and delayed and crowds filled Cairo International Airport.
By late afternoon up to 4,000 protesters had gathered peacefully in Tahrir Square. The appearance of warplanes was followed by the arrival of hundreds more army troops and armoured vehicles on to the streets of Cairo and other cities in an apparent attempt to enforce a 4pm curfew, but the soldiers appeared to be taking little action and many fraternised with those gathered on the streets.
"Even if reform comes from Mubarak, we don't want him," said Hisham Madkar, a 36-year-old chemist, who said he had been detained for six days in 1997 and tortured.
"Every one of these people here has a special story about why they hate this regime."
In surreal scenes, soldiers stood by tanks covered in anti-Mubarak graffiti: "Down with Mubarak. Down with the despot. Down with the traitor. Pharaoh out of Egypt."
Asked how they could let protesters scrawl anti-Mubarak slogans on their vehicles, one soldier said: "These are written by the people, it's the views of the people."
The uprising also took a sinister turn as gangs of young men with guns and large sticks were seen smashing cars and robbing people in some Cairo neighbourhoods.
Through the night, Cairo residents armed with clubs, chains and knives formed vigilante groups to guard neighbourhoods from marauders after the unpopular police force withdrew following the deadly clashes with protesters.
Egyptian security officials said that, overnight, armed men fired at guards in gun battles that lasted hours at the four prisons, including one northwest of Cairo, that held hundreds of militants. The prisoners escaped after starting fires and clashing with guards.
Those who fled included 34 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organised opposition group. The Egyptian security officials said several inmates were killed and wounded, but gave no specific figures.
Residents said they hoped the army, revered in Egypt and less associated with daily repression than the police and security agencies, would restore order. However, a broader and tougher military role also risked appearing to place the army on the side of the regime.
"People are terrified by these outlaws on the streets looting, attacking and destroying," said Salah Khalife, an employee at a sugar company.
The turmoil, in which more than 100 people have died, has sent shockwaves through the Middle East and unsettled financial markets around the globe as well as Egypt's allies in the West.
Parliament's speaker, Fathi Sorour, said yesterday that results from last year's fraud-tainted parliamentary elections would be "corrected" in court decisions soon. But many protesters said they wanted the complete removal of an administration they blame for poverty, unemployment, widespread corruption and police brutality.
Ahmed Garhi, an agricultural engineer, said: "Every person in the army understands that his job is to protect the country. And what is the police's job? To protect the system and the government."
Egypt's sprawling armed forces, the world's 10th biggest and more than 468,000-strong, have been at the heart of power since army officers staged the 1952 overthrow of the king. It benefits from about $1.3 billion (Dh4.67bn) a year in US military aid.
* additional reporting from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press