Egypt's army gave a powerful boost to the country's opposition tonight by announcing it would not use force to silence "legitimate" demands for democratic reforms in the Arab world's largest country.
On the eve of a million-strong protest planned for tomorrow and amid multiplying signs that the US is moving steadily closer towards ditching its long-standing ally, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak now has few options left.
Tonight, the Egyptian vice-president, Omar Suleiman, said Mubarak had asked him to start a dialogue with all the country's political parties. According to state TV, Suleiman said it would involve constitutional and legislative reforms.
The White House warned in a statement that the crisis should be settled by "meaningful talks," while the EU called for an "orderly transition" to democracy via "free and fair" elections. Mubarak has shown no sign of accepting either.
The veteran Egyptian leader formed a new cabinet today, after appointing his intelligence chief as his vice-president, but there was no indication that popular pressure for him to quit was abating.
The military's statement, reported by the state-run Mena news agency, said: "The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and wellbeing. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people." It referred to the "legitimate demands of honourable citizens".
It was not clear whether the pledge not to use force was intended to draw the sting from protests or signal a weakening of support for the president, who relies on the armed forces as the guarantor of the regime and its stability.
On the seventh consecutive day of unrest tens of thousands of people again rallied in Cairo's central Tahrir Square chanting "Get out ... we want you out" and singing Egypt's national anthem emphasising the patriotic motives of the unprecedented mass unrest. "We have spoken. When the citizens speak, we can not go back," said Ahmed Mustafa. "I came here to fight the fear inside me. People have lost their fear".
Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, said he feared Egypt could end up with a regime as radical as Iran. "Our real fear is of a situation that could develop ... and which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself, repressive regimes of radical Islam," he told reporters after meeting the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
In Washington Barack Obama met Middle East experts as his administration attempts to find a path to a post-Mubarak era that continues to serve its interests, including ensuring that Egypt maintains its 30-year peace treaty with Israel.
Administration hopes are solidifying around the Egyptian dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, despite his difficult relationship with the US after he undermined Washington's claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when he was head of the IAEA and his criticism of Obama's failure to ask Mubarak to resign. But there remain concerns in Washington that ElBaradei may be used by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's leading Islamist political party, to help topple Mubarak and then be pushed aside. ElBaradei has been mandated by opposition parties, including the Brotherhood, to talk to the army about forming a "national salvation government".
The US administration's message to Mubarak was initially a call for reform but has hardened to the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, saying there has to be a transition of power. But Clinton still suggested that Mubarak could stay to oversee free elections, a view that is viewed with distrust by the Egyptian opposition.
The Egyptian head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said there must be a peaceful transition "from one era to another".
Tony Blair, envoy of the Middle East Quartet, stopped short of calling for Mubarak to step down: "Change will happen," he said. "You can't put the genie back in the bottle now." William Hague, the foreign secretary, said after meeting EU colleagues: "We are setting down what should happen [in Egypt] in terms of values, process and institutions, but not trying to dictate precise timetable of elections."
Analysts believe that a likely outcome of the crisis is that Mubarak will eventually be persuaded to stand down by his closest advisers, including the army top brass and Suleiman. The US has close links to the Egyptian military.
Reuters news agency reported that 138 people have been killed in the protests, according to a tally of reports from medical sources, hospitals and witnesses. No official figure has been given.
In Alexandria, Egypt's second city, thousands of protesters gathered in the square outside the main railway station chanting "Come on, go away, show some shame". Witnesses said they had brought blankets and food, intending to stay the night and take part in tomorrow's million-strong march.