CAIRO — Nobel laureate and prominent pro-democracy activist Mohamed ElBaradei returned to his native Egypt Thursday in hopes of leading the biggest wave of mass protests in decades. Clashes continued in Cairo and other cities as protesters set fire to government property and fought with police, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up crowds.
One activist was shot dead in the northern border town of Sheikh Zuwayed, according to local news reports. The country is bracing for even bigger planned protests after midday prayers Friday. Just attending will be a gesture of defiance by ElBaradei, and the protests will be a key test whether the nascent pro-democracy movement can continue to draw crowds to the street.
ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, said he's prepared to lead the demonstrators if asked. Until his arrival, no single leader had emerged, with activists relying on text messages and social networking sites for logistics.
In a move apparently intended to stymie the planning for Friday, Twitter and Facebook were interrupted, presumably by official authorities.
One day after the Obama administration urged the government to open a dialogue with protesters, President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party announced talks on their grievances — issues such as unemployment and poverty, but Safwat el Sherif, the secretary-general of the National Democratic Party, didn't acknowledge their main call for the end of Mubarak's 30-year rule.
"We are confident in our ability to listen. The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties," Sherif said. "But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority."
The protests roiling the Arab world's most populous nation and a stalwart ally of the U.S. began Tuesday, when tens of thousands marched in the capital, Cairo, and several other major cities under banners declaring it "the day of revolt against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment."
At least six people have died in the melees so far, though local media reports put the number higher, and hundreds were injured. Police have arrested more than 900 people, according to news reports and human rights groups.
Economic distress has drawn many to the protests against the political leadership.
"The people in Suez are choking, the prices are rising while the salaries are not," said Moustafa Hosni, 30, a crane operator.
"Look at the last elections. Nothing changes in this country," Hosni said Thursday, referring to parliamentary elections in November that were widely considered to have been rigged to guarantee a landslide victory for the NDP, a tipping point for many Egyptians who said they're fed up with the regime.
Egyptian activists said they were inspired by events in Tunisia, where large-scale rallies toppled the regime and forced longtime President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali into exile. These days, Tunisian activist use Facebook and Twitter to offer advice to their Egyptian counterparts: wear goggles and wet scarves, for example, to fight off the effects of teargas.
Fears over the unrest also took a toll on the Egyptian stock market, where trading briefly stopped on Thursday and the Egyptian pound plummeted for the second day in a row.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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