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Cairo • Violence escalated Thursday in two cities outside the capital city of Cairo, where anti-government protesters torched a fire station and looted weapons that they then turned on police. Egypt's top democracy advocate returned to the country and declared he was ready to lead the campaign to oust longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
In the flash-point city of Suez, east of Cairo, witnesses said rioters some wearing surgical masks to ward off tear gas firebombed the main fire station, and firefighters jumped out windows to escape the flames as heavy black smoke billowed from the building.
In the northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, hundreds of bedouins and police exchanged gunfire, killing a 17-year-old boy. About 300 protesters surrounded a police station from rooftops of nearby buildings and fired two rocket-propelled grenades at it.
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. Millions gather at mosques across the city for Friday prayers, providing organizers with a huge number of people already out on the streets to tap into.
By Thursday evening, Facebook, Twitter, cell phone text messages 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 dialogue with the public but offered no concessions to address demands for a solution to rampant poverty and political change heard in the country's largest anti-government protests in years. Safwat El-Sherif, secretary-general of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and a longtime confidant of Mubarak, was dismissive of protesters at the first news conference by a senior party figure since the unrest began.
"We are confident of our ability to listen. The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties," he said. "But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority."
The 82-year-old Mubarak hasn't been seen in public or heard from since the protests began Tuesday, with tens of thousands marching in Cairo and other cities.
Mubarak hasn't yet said 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 U.S. memos, hereditary succession doesn't meet with the approval of the powerful military.
Mubarak has seen to it that no viable alternative to him has emerged. Constitutional amendments adopted in 2005 by the NDP-dominated Parliament have made it virtually impossible for independents such as Mohamed ElBaradei to run for president.
The White House said Thursday the protests are an opportunity for Mubarak to demonstrate his willingness to listen to his citizens and make "necessary" political reform.
Opposition leaderto join in protests
• Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who formerly headed the U.N. nuclear regulatory agency, returned to Egypt on Thursday in a move certain to increase political pressure on President Hosni Mubarak during a wave of protests that have gripped the nation.
ElBaradei's presence could further energize protesters and opposition groups who, for months, have been urging him to take his National Front for Change to the streets. The bespectacled 68-year-old lawyer has been reluctant to join demonstrations in the past, but he indicated he would attend rallies scheduled for Friday.
"I will participate," said ElBaradei after leaving his home in Vienna to fly to Egypt. "I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act."
In an article this week in Newsweek titled, "The Return of the Challenger," ElBaradei wrote: "I am going back to Cairo, and back onto the streets, because, really, there is no choice. So far, the regime does not seem to have gotten that message."