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Anti-Mubarak Protests Surge, but Remain Peaceful

Updated 2:01 p.m. ET

CAIRO - More than a quarter-million people flooded Cairo's main square Tuesday in a stunning and jubilant array of young and old, urban poor and middle class professionals, mounting by far the largest protest yet in a week of unrelenting demands for President Hosni Mubarak to leave after nearly 30 years in power.

Al-Arabiya television said late Tuesday that Mubarak planned to address the nation Tuesday night. It was not explicitly clear that Mubarak would resign, but he intended to announce that he would not seek reelection and would "accommodate all the demands made by the people," according to a translation of the Al-Arabiya broadcast by CBS News' Khaled Wassef.

The crowds - determined but peaceful - filled Tahrir, or Liberation, Square and spilled into nearby streets, among them people defying a government transportation shutdown to make their way from rural provinces in the Nile Delta. Protesters jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, with schoolteachers, farmers, unemployed university graduates, women in conservative headscarves and women in high heels, men in suits and working-class men in scuffed shoes.

They sang nationalist songs and chanted the anti-Mubarak "Leave! Leave! Leave!" as military helicopters buzzed overhead. Organizers said the aim was to intensify marches to get the president out of power by Friday, and similar demonstrations erupted in at least five other cities around Egypt.

Al Jazeera reported the crowd in and around Tahrir Square may have been as large as 2 million.

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Soldiers at checkpoints set up the entrances of the square did nothing to stop the crowds from entering.

The military promised on state TV Monday night that it would not fire on protesters answering a call for a million to demonstrate, and recognized the "legitimate demands by honorable citizens," a sign that army support for Mubarak may be unraveling as momentum builds for an extraordinary eruption of discontent and demands for democracy in the United States' most important Arab ally.

"This is the end for him. It's time," said Musab Galal, a 23-year-old unemployed university graduate who came by minibus with his friends from the Nile Delta city of Menoufiya.

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Emboldened by the tacit support of the military, the coalition of groups opposing Mubarak has said that it will consider talks about a transition to democracy only after Mubarak resigns, Al Jazeera reports.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, who's had a bird's eye view of the beating heart of the protests in Tahrir Square, said the atmosphere became "a bit Woodstock" Monday evening after the Army statement, and remained good natured overnight.

She says it's been remarkable to observe "how extraordinarily disciplined the protesters have been," cleaning up after themselves in the square, and exhibiting an "amazing feeling of solidarity and kindness."

"There seems to be a determination to make this civilized civil unrest," says Palmer.

Tens of thousands - and by some reports as many as a million - people gathered in the coastal city of Alexandria in a parallel protest. There were conflicting reports about pockets of violence at that protest, with some observers saying between 100 and 300 people may have been killed.

Al Jazeera initially reported on the violence, then called it a "false alarm" in a Twitter message, citing CNN reporter Nic Robertson, who called the protest "peaceful." But on-air analysts have continued to make reference to instances of violence there.

But the United Nations' High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, referred in a statement Tuesday to "unconfirmed reports suggesting as many as 300 people may have been killed so far, more than 3,000 injured and hundreds arrested."

Pillay "praised the extraordinary popular movement in Egypt [but] said she was deeply alarmed by the sharp rise in casualties over the past few days, and urged the authorities to listen to the demands of the Egyptian people for fundamental reforms to improve human rights and democracy," the statement read.

Mubarak, 82, would be the second Arab leader pushed from office by a popular uprising in the history of the modern Middle East, following the ouster last month of Tunisia's president.

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The movement to drive Mubarak out has been built on the work of on-line activists and fueled by deep frustration with an autocratic regime blamed for ignoring the needs of the poor and allowing corruption and official abuse to run rampant. After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the Tunisia unrest took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of protests across this nation of 80 million people - the region's most populous country and the center of Arabic-language film-making, music and literature.

The repercussions were being felt around the region, as other authoritarian governments fearing popular discontent pre-emptively tried to burnish their democratic image.

Jordan's King Abdullah II fired his government Tuesday in the face of smaller street protests, named an ex-prime minister to form a new Cabinet and ordered him to launch political reforms. The Palestinian Cabinet in West Bank said it would hold long-promised municipal elections "as soon as possible."

The chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John Kerry, gave public voice to what senior U.S. officials have said only privately in recent days: that Mubarak should "step aside gracefully to make way for a new political structure."

The U.S. ambassador in Cairo, Margaret Scobey, spoke by telephone Tuesday with prominent democracy advocate Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the embassy said. ElBaradei has taken a key role with other opposition groups in formulating the movement's demands for Mubarak to step down and allow a transitional government paving the way for free elections. There was no immediate word on what Scobey and ElBaradei discussed.

In an interview with Al-Arabiya television, ElBaradei rejected an offer late Monday by Vice President Omar Suleiman for a dialogue on enacting constitutional reforms. He said there could be no negotiations until Mubarak leaves.

ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.

ElBaradei hailed the armed forces for their "alignment with the people." He said he was speaking on behalf a large portion of the opposition coalition, but did not represent them officially or completely.

"We all know that the first legitimate demand set by the people is the departure of President Mubarak, so that we would start a transitional era, and build a new Egypt on the basis of stability, freedom and democracy," ElBaradei said. "I expect and hope that today's protest would be the last, and that President Mubarak would understand that it is time for him to go in order to avoid more bloodshed."

ElBaradei also signaled a Friday deadline for Mubarak's departure.

Suleiman's offer and other gestures by the regime have fallen flat. The Obama administration roundly rejected Mubarak's appointment of a new government Monday afternoon that dropped his interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters. State TV on Tuesday ran a statement by the new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, pleading with the public to "give a chance" to his government.

The United States, meanwhile, ordered non-essential U.S. government personnel and their families to leave Egypt in an indication of the deepening concern over the situation.

They join a wave of people rushing to flee the country — over 18,000 overwhelmed Cairo's international airport and threw it into chaos. EgyptAir staff scuffled with frantic passengers, food supplies were dwindling and some policemen even demanded substantial bribes before allowing foreigners to board their planes.

Troops and Soviet-era and newer U.S.-made Abrams tanks stood at the roads leading into Tahrir Square, a plaza overlooked by the headquarters of the Arab League, the campus of the American University in Cairo, the famed Egyptian Museum and the Mugammma, an enormous winged building housing dozens of departments of the country's notoriously corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy.

The protesters were more organized than on previous days. Volunteers wearing tags reading "the People's Security" circulated through the crowds, saying they were watching for government infiltrators who might try to instigate violence.

"We will throw out anyone who tries to create trouble," one announced over a loudspeaker. Other volunteers joined the soldiers at the checkpoints, searching bags of those entering for weapons. Organizers said the protest would remain in the square and not attempt to march to avoid frictions with the military.

Two dummies representing Mubarak were hung from traffic lights. On their chests was written: "We want to put the murderous president on trial." Their faces were scrawled with the Star of David, an allusion to many protesters' feeling that Mubarak is a friend of Israel, still seen by most Egyptians as their country's archenemy more than 30 years after the two nations signed a peace treaty.

Among the older protesters there was also a sense of amazement after three decades of unquestioned control by Mubarak's security forces over the streets.

"We could never say no to Mubarak when we were young, but our young people today proved that they can say no, and I'm here to support them," said Yusra Mahmoud, a 46-year-old school principal who said she had been sleeping in the square alongside other protesters for the past two nights.

Authorities shut down all roads and public transportation to Cairo, security officials said. Train services nationwide were suspended for a second day and all bus services between cities were halted.

All roads in and out of the flashpoint cities of Alexandria, Suez, Mansoura and Fayoum were also closed.

According to Al Jazeera, military police installed barbed wire around Mubarak's palace in Heliopolis.

Tens of thousands also rallied in the cities of Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura, north of Cairo, as well as in the southern province of Assiut and Luxor, the southern city where some 5,000 people protested outside its iconic ancient Egyptian temple on the east bank of the Nile, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Normally bustling, Cairo's streets outside Tahrir Square had a fraction of their normal weekday traffic.

Banks, schools and the stock market in Cairo were closed for the third working day, making cash tight. Long lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to replenish their stores of bread, for which prices were spiraling.

An unprecedented shutdown of the Internet was in its fifth day after the last of the service providers abruptly stopped shuttling Internet traffic into and out of the country.

Cairo's international airport remained a scene of chaos as thousands of foreigners sought to flee.

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.

The protesters - and the Obama administration - roundly rejected Mubarak's appointment of a new government Monday afternoon that dropped his highly unpopular interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters. Mubarak was shown making the appointment on state television but made no comment.

Publicly, the Obama administration has declined to discuss the subject of Mubarak's future. However, administration officials said Monday that Washington prefers Mubarak not contest the upcoming vote. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of diplomacy.

Then, hours after the army's evening announcement said it would not use force on the protesters, Vice President Omar Suleiman - appointed by Mubarak only two days earlier in what could be a sucession plan - went on state TV 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.

Unity was far from certain among the array of movements involved in the protests, with sometimes conflicting agendas - including students, online activists, grass-roots organizers, old-school opposition politicians and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, along with everyday citizens drawn by the exhilaration of marching against the government.

In a statement, the Brotherhood rejected dialogue with Mubarak or Suleiman and asked that the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court take over as interim leader, CBS News' Khaled Wassef reports.

The various protesters have little in common beyond the demand that Mubarak go. Perhaps the most significant tensions among them is between young secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to form a state governed by Islamic law but renounced violence in the 1970s unlike other Islamist groups that waged a violent campaign against the government in the 1980s and 1990s. 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.

"The longer this plays out, the more things begin to unravel … it creates political openings. And what we've learned through history is often not the first phase or even the second phase that matters, it's the third or fourth phase," Dr. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told CBS' "The Early Show" Tuesday. "And clearly the religious radicals … [will] try to exploit any political openings, which is why it's important that sooner rather than later a dialogue starts to take place, Mubarak leaves office and order is restored and the economy gets started up again."

"We will respect the peace treaty with Israel as long as Israel shows real progress on improving the lot of the Palestinians," Muslim Brotherhood deputy head Dr. Mahmoud Ezzat told Palmer in an interview Tuesday.

Asked whether the Brotherhood wanted peace with Israel, Ezzat said, "We want peace with all the world."

A second day of talks among opposition groups at the headquarters of the liberal Wafd party fell apart after many of the youth groups boycotted the meeting over charges that some of the traditional political parties have agreed to start a dialogue with Suleiman.

Nasser Abdel-Hamid, who represents pro-democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, said: "We were supposed to hold talks today to finalize formation of a salvation front, but we decided to hold back after they are arranging meetings with Sulieman."

The U.S. State Department said that a retired senior diplomat - former ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner - 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.

ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, invigorated anti-Mubarak feeling with his return to Egypt last year, but the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood remains Egypt's largest opposition movement.

In a nod to the suspicions, Brotherhood figures insist they are not seeking a leadership role.

Still, Brotherhood members appeared to be joining the protest in greater numbers and more openly. During the first few days of protests, the crowd in Tahrir Square was composed of mostly young men in jeans and T-shirts.

Many of the volunteers handing out food and water to protesters were men in long traditional dress with the trademark Brotherhood appearance - a closely cropped haircut and bushy beards.