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With Mubarak on brink, ElBaradei takes spotlight ; Call for resignation bolsters Egypt revolt

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. In doing so, ElBaradei established himself as the face of Egypt's six-day pro-democracy uprising.

The dramatic nighttime appearance by ElBaradei -- the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former chief U.N. nuclear watchdog 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, 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. American-made 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 despised Interior Ministry to sow chaos. Dozens of prisoners reportedly escaped or had been freed from jails.

The U.S. Embassy was making arrangements to evacuate American citizens to "safe haven locations in Europe" starting today and authorized non-emergency staff and the relatives of diplomats to leave Egypt. The State Department urged Americans to "consider leaving as soon as they can safely do so."

In neighboring Israel, reaction was muted. Normally talkative Cabinet ministers were silent, following strict orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region," Netanyahu said at the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday. "Peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades, and our goal is to ensure these relations continue."

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, or Liberation, Square have provided the world a front-row seat to the revolt -- and prompted authorities to close its Cairo bureau Sunday. The network continued to broadcast via satellite, however.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians defied fear and the third day of a nationwide curfew to mass again after nightfall Sunday in Tahrir Square. ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appeared at 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 we have begun cannot be reversed," he said. "We have a key demand: for the regime to step down and to start a new era."

Even 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.

On the streets of the capital Sunday, however, Egyptians had begun to refer to Mubarak as "the ex-president."

Opposition groups appeared to be coalescing around ElBaradei as the face of the uprising for now. He secured the backing of the largest opposition organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, although many Egyptians criticize ElBaradei as a latecomeror say he doesn't represent ordinary citizens.

He and another prominent dissident, Ayman Nour, were named to a 10-member committee formed Sunday by a loose grouping of opposition factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to negotiate with the regime and press for Mubarak's resignation.

"We are not negotiating with President Mubarak, since our key demand is to have him stepping down," Nour told Al Jazeera English. "We will negotiate with the army, and we will also negotiate with other political parties in order to have a national reconciliation government."

Nour denied that the committee was asking the army to stage a coup against Mubarak, saying that it wanted the military to "defend and safeguard the citizens."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday called for "real democracy" in Egypt and praised the "great outpouring of desire" expressed by protesters there. But she did not call for the ouster of Mubarak.

Appearing on all the major talk shows Sunday morning, Clinton sought to clarify the Obama administration's position on Egypt and on Mubarak. She offered support to the pro-democracy movement there but declined to say if Mubarak should step down, saying it was "up to the Egyptian people" to decide who should lead their country.

On ABC's "This Week," Clinton said that under Mubarak Egypt has been a "partner in achieving historic peace with Israel [and] a partner in trying to stabilize a region that is subject to a lot of challenges."

At the same time, she said, the United States has always pushed for democracy in the country even as it has worked with Mubarak.

"And, by that, I mean real democracy, not a democracy for six months or a year and then evolving into essentially a military dictatorship or a so-called democracy that leads to what we've seen in Iran," Clinton said.

"Any government that does not try to move in that direction cannot meet the legitimate needs of the people," she said. "People are not going to stand by any longer and not be given the opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potential."

Speaking on CNN, 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 will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people."

Earlier Sunday, there was almost no police presence on the streets of Cairo, and military tanks stayed parked in Tahrir Square and other neighborhoods without confronting protesters. Authorities said the nationwide curfew would be extended for a fourth day today, and would begin an hour earlier, at 3 p.m. Cairo time (8 a.m. EST).

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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