CAIRO—In the morning, Egyptian Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi visited the square, the highest government figure to do so. He reviewed troops stationed there and mingled with protesters, trying to convince them that most of their demands have been met and they should go home.
The pro-government rioters of the past two days largely disappeared. In the afternoon, small groups of Mubarak supporters tried to move on the square from two directions, banging with sticks on metal fences to raise an intimidating clamor. But protesters throwing rocks pushed them back. More than two dozen people were injured, most of them lightly.
The Arabic news network Al-Jazeera said a “gang of thugs” stormed its offices in a continuation of attacks on journalists by regime supporters that erupted Thursday. It said the attackers burned the office and damaged equipment. The editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s website, Abdel-Galil el-Sharnoubi, told the AP that policemen stormed its office Friday morning and arrested 10 to 15 of its journalists. Also clashes with sticks and fists between pro- and anti-government demonstrators erupted in two towns in southern Egypt.
On the other side of Cairo, dozens of regime supporters carrying machetes and sticks set up an impromptu checkpoint on the ring-road highway encircling the city of 18 million. They stopped cars, asking for IDs, apparently trying to root out people heading to Tahrir to join the protest. One of the armed men wore a sign reading, “We are sorry, Mr. President.”
Arab League chief Amr Moussa appeared in the square Friday to visit the protesters in what appeared to be a trial balloon for running for Egypt’s presidency.
His convoy was greeted by supporters with chants of “we want you as president, we want you as president.” Moussa, previously a foreign minister under Mubarak, has an elder statesman appeal for some Egyptians, boosted by his tough rhetoric against Israel.
Asked earlier by France’s Europe 1 radio if he would consider a role in the transitional government or an eventual presidential run, Moussa replied, “Why say no?”
The atmosphere in the square was relaxed. Many brought fresh bread, water, fruit and other supplies. Long lines formed at tables of people handing out tea and bread. Several celebrities of Egyptian cinema and TV joined the march, including Sherihan, a beloved screen beauty from the 1980s and early 1990s who largely disappeared from the public eye because of health issues.
Many of the protesters involved in the fighting still wore tattered bandages. Around the square were makeshift clinics, set up in the entrances of stores, including a KFC. Above one was the sign of an interlocking crescent and cross, the signs of Islam and Christianity.
Mohammed Rafat al-Tahtawi, the spokesman of state-run Al-Azhar Mosque, the country’s pre-eminent Islamic institution, announced on Al-Jazeera that he had resigned from his position to join the protesters.
“We’re calling on this to be the largest protest ever,” said Mahmoud Salem, a youth activist and blogger. “We are hoping it will be the last one.”
But Prime Minister Shafiq told Al-Arabiya that Mubarak’s departure was “unlikely.”
“Mubarak’s remaining as president is a source of security for the nation,” he said.
Trying to launch the transition with Mubarak still in place, Vice President Suleiman has offered negotiations with all political forces over constitutional changes needed to ensure a free vote ahead of September elections. Mubarak has said he will not run for re-election in the vote.
Suleiman said the dialogue invitation includes the protest leaders and regime’s top foe the Muslim Brotherhood. That was a significant point, suggesting the banned Islamic fundamentalist Brotherhood could be allowed an open political role in the post-Mubarak era.
But so far the protest factions have stuck to their condition that Mubarak step down before any negotiations on the constitution.
ElBaradei’s comments Friday reflected a widespread worry over protesters that unless Mubarak goes and a broader transitional government is put in place, the regime will try to push through only limited reforms to preserve its hold. They dismiss as illegitimate Shafiq’s government, appointed by Mubarak soon after the protests erupted on Jan. 25.
Suleiman has talked of changing the constitution to ensure fair supervision of elections, loosen now suffocating restrictions on who can run for president and impose a term limit for the president.
ElBaradei and other protest leaders have demanded more. They want a lifting of the emergency law in place for the entirety of Mubarak’s rule that gives security forces near unlimited powers and greater freedom to form political parties. Currently, any new party effectively needs approval by Mubarak’s ruling party. As a result, the existing opposition parties are largely shells with little popular support or organization, meaning the ruling party would have a huge advantage even in a fair election.
Suleiman has not mentioned either issue. Suleiman, who was intelligence chief and Mubarak’s top aide until being elevated to vice president last week, is mistrusted by some of the protesters as a regime figure, but others have spoken him as an acceptable interim president. ElBaradei said he respects Suleiman as someone to negotiate with over the transition, but did not address whether he should have any presidential role.
ElBaradei said he was consulting with prominent lawyers and experts to draw up a temporary constitution. He called for a transitional government headed by a presidential council made up of two or three figures, including a military representative. It would hold power for a year as a permanent constitution is drawn up, then elections could be held.
Still, he underlined that the protest movement is not seeking “retribution” or a complete purge of the ruling party, only a more level playing field. “Not everyone who worked with the regime should be eliminated,” he said.
AP correspondents Hamza Hendawi, Sarah El Deeb and Maggie Michael contributed to this report.