VIENNA // The prominent Egyptian reform campaigner Mohammed ElBaradei said he expected large demonstrations across Egypt on Friday and that the time had come for President Hosni Mubarak to leave power.
Mr ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, told Reuters shortly before he was due to leave Vienna for Cairo today: "He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire.
"I think he has to declare that he is not going to run again (for president)," said Mr ElBaradei, who lives in Vienna.
"Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them," Mr ElBaradei said, calling for peaceful protests.
"People broke the culture of fear and once you break the culture of fear there is no going back," he said.
In a comment on the American web-based news site The Daily Beast today, Mr Elbaradei said: "I am going back to Cairo, and back onto the streets because, really, there is no choice. You go out there with this massive number of people, and you hope things will not turn ugly, but so far, the regime does not seem to have gotten that message."
His arrival in Cairo could inspire protesters who have no figurehead, although many activists resent his long absences over past months.
Mr ElBaradei launched a campaign for change last year, raising hopes his international stature could galvanise the opposition.
But many activists have since complained that he should have spent more time on the street than abroad.
"I will be with them in the protests but I'm not the person who would lead (demonstrations) in the street … my job is to manage the change politically," Mr ElBaradei told Reuters.
In a message posted on his Twitter page, Mr ElBaradei said: "We shall continue to exercise our right of peaceful demonstration and restore our freedom and dignity. Regime violence will backfire badly."
Pro-democracy activists promised to step up the largest anti-government protests in Egypt in three decades, despite mass arrests and mammoth security.
The protests against the autocratic rule of President Mubarak, inspired by the groundbreaking "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, have sent shockwaves across the region and prompted Washington to prod its long-time ally on democratic reforms.
Mr Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party was holding talks today, according to party members, "to evaluate the situation".
Events on the streets sent jitters through Egypt's stock exchange, which suspended trading temporarily after a drop of 6.2 per cent in the benchmark EGX 30 index, a day after it fell 6 per cent.
Members of the pro-democracy youth group April 6 Movement said they would defy the ban on demonstrations and take to the streets again today, while calling for mass demonstrations after Friday's Muslim prayers.
Today "will not be a holiday … street action will continue," the group said on its Facebook page.
"We've started and we won't stop," one demonstrator told AFP, even as riot police fanned out across central Cairo.
"To continue what we started on January 25, we will take to the streets to demand the right to life, liberty, dignity and we call on everyone to take to the streets ... and to keep going until the demands of the Egyptian people have been met," the group said.
Opposition groups circulated SMS messages and posted appeals on social networking site Facebook for fresh demonstrations "to demand the right to live with freedom and dignity".
By early this afternoon, however, there was no sign of the crowds of protesters that had flooded central Cairo on the previous two days.
According to a security official, at least 1,000 people have been detained around the country since the demonstrations started on Tuesday.
Medics have reported the deaths of six people, four protesters and two policemen, in violence linked to the protests, with 55 protesters and 15 police injured.
Demonstrations in central Cairo continued into the early hours of Thursday, ending when police fired tear gas and made further arrests.
In running battles Wednesday afternoon and into the night, police chased demonstrators through the streets of a popular commercial district in Cairo after the authorities declared a ban on demonstrations.
Protesters responded by throwing rocks at police, damaging several shop fronts in an area near the information ministry.
Protesters in the northeastern port city of Suez threw Molotov cocktails at a government building, setting parts of it on fire, witnesses said.
Dozens were arrested in Egypt's second city of Alexandria as they tried to reach a sea-front square to demonstrate, witnesses said.
The United States, Egypt's chief ally in the Arab world, meanwhile issued a nuanced written statement in Presient Obama's name on Egypt.
"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper," it said.
"The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," it added.
The statement also underlined US support for basic democratic freedoms "including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly".
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said the "government is keen to guarantee freedom of expression through legitimate means", but did not elaborate.
The protests are the largest in Egypt since bread riots in 1977, four years before Mr Mubarak came to power.
Among protesters' demands are the departure of the interior minister, whose security forces have been accused of heavy-handedness; an end to a decades-old state of emergency and a rise in minimum wages.
Political discontent has been rumbling louder than ever in Egypt since parliamentary elections in November, which were widely seen as rigged to allow candidates from Mr Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party to record a landslide victory.