ElBaradei returns to Egypt - AP - Jan. 27, 2010
Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy activist Mohamed ElBaradei on his return to Cairo on Jan. 27, 2010. Photo by AP
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Protests in Egypt give the government of President Hosni Mubarak a "great opportunity" to advance some of the political reforms U.S. officials have been discussing with Cairo, including freedom of speech, a White House official said on Thursday.

Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, speaking in a White House webcast, also urged the government and protesters in Egypt to refrain from violence.

The comments came as anti-government protests continue to sweep across the country with Egypt's top democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei returning to join demonstrators trying to oust Mubarak.

U.S. President Barack Obama said violence was not the answer in Egypt and that he had repeatedly told President Mubarak to make sure his government was moving forward on political and economic reforms.

Security forces shot dead a Bedouin protester in the north of Egypt's Sinai region on Thursday, bringing the death toll to five on the third day of protests inspired by unrest which toppled Tunisia's president earlier this month.

White House Spokesman Rober Gibbs said that the U.S. was not taking sides in the unrest, despite Mubarak being a close U.S. partner. He added that the U.S. believes that Egypt's government is stable despite the mass protests.

In a sign open defiance against authoritarian rulers was spreading, police clashed with protesters in the Arabian Peninsula state of Yemen and Gabon in West Africa.

Police in Suez fired rubber bullets, water cannon and tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators calling for an end to Mubarak's 30-year-old rule.

Like in many other countries in the region, protesters in Egypt complain about surging prices, unemployment and the authorities' reliance on heavy-handed security to keep dissenting voices quiet.

ElBaradei told Reuters before heading to Egypt from Vienna where he lives that it was time for Mubarak to step aside.

"He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire," said ElBaradei, a campaigner for reform in Egypt who won the peace prize for his earlier work as head of the UN nuclear agency.

"Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them."

His arrival could spur protesters who have no figurehead, although many activists resent his absences in recent months.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif urged citizens to exercise self control on Friday, the cabinet spokesman told reporters.

Egyptians torched a police post in Suez early on Thursday in response to the killing of three demonstrators earlier in the week, a Reuters witness said.

"Our government is a dictatorship. A total dictatorship," said Mohamed Fahim, a 29-year-old glass factory worker, as he stood near the charred skeleton of a car.

"It's our right to choose our government ourselves. We have been living 29 years, my whole life, without being able to choose a president."

One policeman has been killed in Cairo in the anti-government protests, unprecedented during Mubarak's rule of a state that is a key U.S. ally.

Al-Arabiya said on Thursday Egypt's general prosecutor had charged 40 protesters with trying to "overthrow the regime".

Interior Minister Habib al-Adli, whose resignation is being demanded by the protesters, has dismissed the demonstrations.

"Egypt's system is not marginal or frail. We are a big state, with an administration with popular support. The millions will decide the future of this nation, not demonstrations even if numbered in the thousands," he told Kuwait's al-Rai newspaper, according to the newspaper's website.

Witnesses say demonstrators have been dragged away, beaten and shoved into police vans. The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday that 500 had been arrested. An independent coalition of lawyers said at least 1,200 were detained.

ElBaradei, 68, launched a campaign for change last year, raising hopes his international stature could galvanize the opposition. But many activists have since complained that he should have spent more time on the street than abroad.

"If we are talking about Egypt, there is a whole rainbow variety of people who are secular, liberal, market oriented, and if you give them a chance they will organize to elect a government that is modern and moderate," he said.

A presidential election is due in September. Egyptians assume that the 82-year-old Mubarak plans either to remain in control or hand power to his son Gamal, 47. Father and son both deny that Gamal is being groomed for the job.