Organisers of a rally for peaceful change in Egypt say they hope one million people will come on to the streets in what is expected to be the biggest show of opposition to the autocratic regime of President Hosni Mubarak yet.
Egypt's government posted troops at key locations and cut internet service as activists planned major demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities.
Senior figures in the army have said that they will not fire on unarmed protesters - a move which has emboldened many who may otherwise have stayed away. But there is nervousness as well as anticipation on the streets.
The developments on Tuesday 1 February come a week after rallies began calling for an end to Mr Mubarak's rule of almost 30 years.
Meanwhile, newly appointed Vice-President Omar Suleiman says he will hold cross-party talks on constitutional reform.
Mr Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet on Monday 31 January, in an attempt to try to head off the protests. He replaced the widely despised Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
But correspondents say that the army's statement has been a major blow to President Mubarak, and that Omar Suleiman will now be trying to engineer a way for him to step aside without descent into chaos or direct conflict. A measure of face saving will also be attempted, though it is unclear what is possible now, given the scale and momentum of opposition.
Mr Mubarak still retains some support in the country outside the major cities, but it is the urban population, including well-educated students and the middle classes, who are driving change at present.
Although it has been primarily nonviolent, the movement to remove the President, following similar developments that brought regime change in Tunisia in January 2011, has nevertheless claimed at least 125 lives in clashes between demonstrators and police.
While the army has so far played a more neutral and mediating role, the police are seen by protesters as being unequivocally on the side of the regime.
There is no history of the army directly quashing unarmed groups in Egypt, unlike some other countries in the region, but there is also no developed tradition of nonviolence among ordinary people, so observers say that the situation remains volatile.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, which promotes conflict transformation and pecaemaking approaches to situations of oppression and conflict, said: “While the change brought about in Tunisia and being mobilised in Egypt could not be described as being without violence, the fact that it is a primarily non-armed expression of popular pressure for freedom, and that it is re-sculpting a frozen political landscape, shows the potential for radically re-orienting our thinking towards nonviolence.”
“Transitions from tyranny to political pluralism and from violent power to peaceful pressure for change are never smooth, unproblematic or unconditional,” added Barrow. “But as the myriad civil society groups will testify, the perils of peace are far preferable to the wanton destruction of war, and the cultural transformation required to move away from tanks, bombs and bullets as a way to bring change is a long term process which requires practical education in the deployment, use and consolidation of unarmed power.”
Ecumenical, legal and political consultant Dr Harry Hagopian, whose paper ‘Politics, Religion and the Middle East’ (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14037) is published by Ekklesia this week, commented: “These popular outbursts are happening not only in the capital Cairo but also across the whole of Egypt, with unarmed men and women confronting the institutions of the state with remarkable determination and responsibility.”
“In essence, they wish to retrieve their dignity after decades of repression as well as lack of democracy or citizenship rights,” said Dr Hagopian. “Under such circumstances, it will be very difficult to lure the genie back into the bottle without some radical and long overdue changes. Cosmetic measures failed to calm spirits in Tunisia, and they will fail in Egypt too. It might also be hard to stop the domino effect of this popular movement from affecting other countries in the Middle East-North Africa region.”