March of a million
END IN SIGHT: Cairo protesters sense final push as opposition leaders hold talks to appoint leader of new regime
A million people were urged to take to the streets today to demand that Egypt's authoritarian leader step down as more signs emerged that army support for President Hosni Mubarak may be unravelling.
The military pledged yesterday not to fire on protesters as more than 10,000 people beat drums, played music and chanted slogans in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which has become the epicentre of a week of protests demanding an end to Mr Mubarak's three decades in power.
With organisers calling for a "march of a million people", there was an increasing feeling in the sprawling plaza -- whose name means "liberation" in Arabic -- that the uprising was nearing a decisive point.
"He only needs a push!" was one of the most frequent chants, and a leaflet circulated by some protesters said it was time for the military to choose between 82-year-old Mr Mubarak and the people.
The latest gesture by Mr Mubarak aimed at defusing the crisis fell flat. His top ally, the US, roundly rejected his announcement yesterday of a new government that dropped his highly unpopular interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters.
The crowds in the streets were equally unimpressed.
"It's almost the same government, as if we are not here, as if we are sheep," said Khaled Bassyouny, a 30-year-old internet entrepreneur, who said it was time to escalate the marches.
"It has to burn. It has to become ugly. We have to take it to the presidential palace," he said.
Another concession came last night, when new Vice President Omar Suleiman went on state TV to announce the offer of a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.
Mr Suleiman did not say what the changes would involve or which groups the government would speak to. Opposition forces have long demanded the lifting of restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party. A presidential election is due in September.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissed the naming of the new government, saying the situation in Egypt called for action, not appointments.
An Egyptian army statement, aired on state TV, said the military recognised "the legitimacy of the people's demands" -- the strongest sign yet that it is willing to let the protests continue and even grow as long as they remain peaceful, even if that leads to the fall of Mr Mubarak.
If the president loses the support of the military, it would probably be a fatal blow to his rule.
For days, army tanks and troops have surrounded Tahrir Square, keeping the protests confined, but doing nothing to stop people from joining.
A major question throughout the unrest has been whether protests that began as a decentralised eruption of anger largely by grassroots activists can become a unified political leadership to press demands and keep up momentum.
There were signs yesterday of an attempt to do so, as around 30 representatives from various opposition groups met to work out a joint stance.
The gathering issued the call for today's escalated protests but did not reach a final agreement on a list of demands.
They would meet again today to try to do so and decide whether to make prominent reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei spokesman for the protesters.
Mr ElBaradei, a pro-democracy advocate and former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.