CAIRO — Opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei emerged from house arrest late Sunday to join protesters in central Cairo, echoing their demand that U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak resign and establishing himself as the face of Egypt's six-day pro-democracy uprising.
The appearance by ElBaradei — the Nobel Peace Prize winner who returned to Egypt last week after the protests began — suddenly placed him at the forefront of a leaderless grass-roots revolt that has brought one of the Arab world's longest and most
entrenched dictatorships to the brink of collapse.
As the banned Muslim Brotherhood and other Egyptian opposition groups said they would support ElBaradei in negotiations for a new government, U.S. President Obama called allies and expressed support for "an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people," according to a White House statement.
Mubarak's days appeared to be numbered, although the 82-year-old leader showed no obvious signs that he would give up the office he has for nearly 30 years.
F-16 fighter jets buzzed protesters in downtown Cairo in a show of intimidation. News services reported that the Egyptian army was sending reinforcements and state television said that the police, who have been absent from the streets since Friday, would resume patrols.
Cairo remained an anxious battle zone: long lines at fuel pumps, markets plucked clean of bread and other staples, shops boarded up or looted, banks and restaurants shuttered. Neighborhood-watch groups armed themselves against the marauding gangs that many Egyptians thought had been unleashed by the hated Interior Ministry to sow chaos. Dozens of prisoners reportedly escaped or had been freed from jails.
The death toll in the protests rose to at least 150, according to Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite network whose live broadcasts of Tahrir ("Liberation") Square have provided the world with a front-row seat to the revolt — and prompted authorities to close its Cairo bureau Sunday. The network continued to broadcast via satellite, however.
Yet tens of thousands of Egyptians defied fear and the third day of a nationwide curfew to mass again after nightfall in Tahrir Square. ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, appeared about 7 p.m. and said through a bullhorn to a crowd that huddled around him: "Today, each of us is a different Egyptian.
"We have restored our rights, we have restored our freedoms. What have begun cannot be reversed," he said. "We have a key demand: for the regime to step down and to start a new era."
Just days ago, even after a similar uprising toppled Tunisia's dictatorial leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a post-Mubarak scenario in Egypt was unthinkable. The majority of Egypt's roughly 80 million citizens have never known any other leader, and chronic complaints about political repression, low wages, corruption and nepotism — he had been grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him — had never seriously challenged a regime that received $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid, most of it for the military.
On the streets of the capital Sunday, however, Egyptians had begun to refer to Mubarak as "the ex-president."
On Saturday, Mubarak named former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his first-ever vice president and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief of staff, as the new prime minister, fueling speculation that he was preparing to hand over power to his closest allies.
The news did nothing to deter the protesters, who on Sunday continued to chant, "Mubarak, you must leave."
Speaking on CNN, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "What we're trying to do is to help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to... plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people."