Egypt's military pledged not to fire on protesters in a sign that army support for President Hosni Mubarak may be unraveling on the eve of a major escalation -- a push for a million people to take to the streets today to demand the authoritarian leader's ouster.
More than 10,000 people beat drums, played music and chanted slogans in Tahrir Square, which has become the focal point of a week of protests demanding an end to Mubarak's three decades in power.
With the organizers' calling for a "march of a million people," the vibe in the sprawling plaza -- whose name in Arabic means "Liberation" -- was of an intensifying feeling that the uprising was nearing a decisive point.
"He only needs a push!" was one of the most frequent chants, and a leaflet circulated by some protesters said that it was time for the military to choose between Mubarak and the people.
The latest gesture by Mubarak aimed at defusing the crisis fell flat. His top ally, the United States, roundly rejected his announcement of a new government Monday that dropped his highly unpopular interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters.
The crowds in the streets were equally unimpressed.
"It's almost the same government, as if we are not here, as if we are sheep," sneered one protester, Khaled Bassyouny, 30, an Internet entrepreneur. He said that it was time to escalate the marches. "It has to burn. It has to become ugly. We have to take it to the presidential palace."
Another concession came late Monday, when Vice President Omar Suleiman -- appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier -- went on state television to announce the offer of a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.
Suleiman did not say what the changes would entail or which groups the government would speak with. Opposition forces have long demanded the lifting of restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is scheduled for September .
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert L. Gibbs dismissed the naming of the new government, saying the situation in Egypt calls for action, not appointments.
Publicly, the Obama administration has declined to discuss the subject of Mubarak's future. However, administration officials said Monday that the United States prefers Mubarak not contest the upcoming vote.
The State Department said that a retired senior diplomat -- Frank G. Wisner, former ambassador to Egypt -- was now on the ground in Cairo and will meet Egyptian officials to urge them to embrace broad economic and political changes that can pave the way for free and fair elections.
The army statement, aired on state TV, said the powerful military recognizes "the legitimacy of the people's demands" -- the strongest sign yet that it is willing to let the protests continue and even grow as long as they remain peaceful, even if that leads to the fall of Mubarak.
If the 82-year-old president, a former air force commander, loses the support of the military, it would likely be a fatal blow to his rule.
A curfew imposed for a fourth straight day -- starting an hour earlier, at 3 p.m. -- was widely ignored. Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the second working day, making cash tight. An unprecedented complete shutdown of the Internet was also in its fourth day. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread.
Cairo's international airport was a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners sought to flee the unrest, and countries around the world scrambled to send in planes to fly their citizens out.
Incidents of looting continued. In Cairo, soldiers detained about 50 men trying to break into the Egyptian National Museum in a fresh attempt to steal the country's archaeological treasures, the military said. An attempt to break into an antiquities storehouse at the famed Pharaonic Karnak Temple in the ancient southern city of Luxor was also foiled.
The official death toll from the crisis stood at 97, with thousands injured, but reports from witnesses across the country indicated the actual toll was far higher. Mubarak appeared fatigued as he was shown on state TV swearing in the members of his new Cabinet.
Unity is far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas.
The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak resign. Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form an Islamist state in the Arab world's largest nation. The more secular are deeply suspicious the Brotherhood aims to co-opt what they contend is a spontaneous, popular movement. American officials have suggested they have similar fears.