Egyptian activists are staging a third day of demonstrations after unrest that has left at least six people dead and scores injured.
Protesters gathered in the capital Cairo and the city of Suez, ahead of the expected return to the country of Nobel peace prize winner and pro-reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei.
Scores of protesters have been seen outside the central Cairo offices of Egypt’s lawyers’ union, which has been one of the flashpoints of this week’s unrest calling for the removal of long-time President Hosni Mubarak, and about 100 people are also protesting outside police headquarters in Suez.
The unrest continues to take its toll on the country’s economy, as trading halted on the stock exchange earlier after the market plunged 6.25% in 15 minutes.
Mr ElBaradei has created a wave of support from reformists, but insists he would not run in this year’s presidential election unless eligibility restrictions are lifted and far reaching political reforms introduced.
His homecoming could provide a much needed figure for protesters to rally around, but his detractors say he spends too much time away from Egypt and may be lacking a thorough understanding of life in Egypt because of the decades he has lived abroad, first as an Egyptian diplomat and later with the United Nations.
Social networking sites have called for a mass rally in Cairo for Friday, after two days of protests by tens of thousands of people led to clashes with security forces, with almost 900 people known to have been detained so far.
The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best organised opposition group, has stated its support for the protests. In a statement posted on its website, the Brotherhood stressed the need for the protests to remain peaceful and avoided repeating the protesters’ calls for an end to Mr Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has urged Egypt to move towards political reform, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “While every country is different, and we shouldn’t try to dictate what they should do, in general I do think it’s important in this situation to respond positively to legitimate demands for reform, to move towards openness, transparency and greater political freedom.”
This week’s protests in Cairo and a string of cities across the Arab nation of some 80 million people are the biggest in years, posing a serious challenge to Mr Mubarak’s authoritarian rule at a time when many Egyptians are complaining of rising prices, unemployment and corruption.