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Mubarak's credibility on the line - can he peacefully quell the unrest?

For two successive days, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Egypt chanting hooreya, meaning "freedom." While some called for an end to the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, the cause for which most marched was political reform and economic betterment.

These are by no means the majority of Egyptians, many of whom worry about chaos and bloodshed. But their grievances are those of most people who are too afraid to act.

Just how Mr. Mubarak, 82, and the Egyptian military handles all this in the next two days will tell a lot about the prospects for the regime's future.

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As the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, Egypt has much greater strategic importance to the West than Tunisia, which ousted its president in a popular revolt two weeks ago. In remarks on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to make clear the United States wants to see genuine change originating from the government in Egypt rather than a dramatic overthrow as occurred in Tunisia.

An uneasy calm fell over Cairo Wednesday night, and soldiers in full combat kit relaxed a bit as they stood guard around the People's Assembly, the Shura Council and other major institutions.

However, the question on everyone's mind is: What will happen Thursday?

In the capital, it was the more affluent, mostly secular people who protested. In Suez and other parts of the country, it was the poor. What they had in common was youth.

"The overwhelming number of protesters are under 25," said Hisham Kassem, former head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

"They have no real leadership and are acting spontaneously," he said. "People like me didn't see this coming."

Tuesday's first public protest was conducted on the national holiday called Police Day. It was ironic, since the police took centre stage coping with the sometimes riotous behaviour of some 20,000 to 30,000 people in Cairo and thousands of others in other cities.

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"For the most part, the security forces let the people protest on Tuesday," an experienced Western diplomat said. "It was the right thing to do: to let people let off some steam.

"Then they made it clear that no protests would be tolerated" on Wednesday.

Indeed, in a pre-emptive move, the security forces scooped up hundreds of known activists hoping that would stanch the flow of protests.

It didn't completely work as two to three thousand protesters marched in Cairo on Wednesday, and were met with much more ruthless police action.

It was the same story in Alexandria and in Suez, where there were reports of a massive march at the funeral of three protesters who had been killed Tuesday. A protester and a policeman were reported to have been killed in the new confrontation.

The government has shut down the social media site Twitter, but on blogs and other sites such as Facebook, many are calling for a "day of rage" on Friday.

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Amr Moussa, a popular former politician and now Secretary-General of the Arab League, summed it up for reporters: "The Arab citizen is angry, is frustrated," he said. "The name of the game is reform."

For the first time, the U.S. administration signalled its concern over events in Egypt. "The Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms," Ms. Clinton said. This was in sharp contrast to Ms. Clinton's remarks Tuesday, when she said the U.S. was confident in "the stability" of Mr. Mubarak's administration.

There is good reason for concern: The U.S. has a lot invested in Egyptian stability. It provides Egypt with more money and defence equipment than any country other than Israel.

As for Israel, it worries too about what effect developments in Egypt will have on the good, if cool, relations Israel has with the most populous Arab state.

Israel counts on what are known as the moderate Arab states - Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia - to quietly support it in its campaign against an increasingly powerful and influential Iran. What will a shakeup in Egypt mean to that, they wonder?

Indeed, the stakes inside Egypt have been raised.

Mr. Mubarak's credibility now is very much on the line: Can he quell the unrest without resorting to greater deadly force?

And if the President's good name is tarnished, will that not close the door on the prospect of his son, Gamal, running to succeed him in elections later this year?

Also at stake is the validity of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country's principal opposition. Though the government has blamed the group for this uprising, the marches that have gripped Egypt have had nothing to do with them.

"The people protesting these days are younger," Mr. Kassem said. "They think the Brotherhood is passé, part of the establishment."

If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to retain its position as the pre-eminent opposition movement, they will have to find a way to play a role in these events.

But the immediate challenge is to Egypt's security establishment.

Can the police hold the line? At what point will they call on the military men in combat gear to come to their aid?

"If the number of people on the streets in Cairo reaches 70,000, the Interior Ministry will be unable to cope," a security source said. "At that point, it will have to call in the army."

But will the army continue to support Mr. Mubarak, who came, himself, from the ranks of the military, as did his two predecessors? In Egypt, the military puts itself above the regime.

There are two scenarios of military intervention, Mr. Kassem said.

"In one scenario, they move in and take control; the people obey them.

"In the other scenario, the people don't obey and the army must decide whether to fire on them or not. If they choose not to fire, they then will pay a visit to the President."

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