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Angry Egyptian activist shouts at riot police outside the journalists' syndicate in downtown Cairo on Wednesday.

The third straight day of protests in Egypt escalated into more violence outside Cairo Thursday, with reports of a fire department set ablaze and of shots exchanged between police and demonstrators.

In an ominous sign, the government also deployed its elite counterterrorism force to public areas such as Tahrir Square, hours before an anticipated mass rally. The special operations team is rarely seen in the streets.

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Egyptians protesters set fire to a building during clashes with anti-riot policemen in Suez. ((Associated Press))

Anti-government protests were buoyed by the return on Thursday night of Mohamed ElBaradei, a vocal campaigner for political reform. The pro-democracy advocate lives in Vienna and is expected to join potentially millions of people in Cairo for a march following Friday prayers.

Egypt's government reportedly disrupted internet communications ahead of Friday's planned demonstrations — a move seen as a pre-emptive measure to suppress further dissent. Use of the social networking websites Twitter and Facebook has been instrumental in reporting about and organizing the rallies. Both sites were blocked sporadically in recent days.

Earlier on Thursday, Egyptian riot police had filled the streets of the capital, clashing with downtown protesters defying a new law banning organized demonstrations.

Meanwhile, violence intensified in two other cities outside of Cairo.

At least 7 killed in clashes so far

Rioters east of the capital in Suez reportedly hurled Molotov cocktails at a fire department, setting it ablaze as firefighters leapt from windows. About 100 people were also protesting outside police headquarters there.

Elsewhere, in the north Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid, witnesses said they heard live ammunition being exchanged between Bedouin protesters and police. A 17-year-old man was killed in the gunfire, The Associated Press reported.

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Egyptian riot police fill the streets of Cairo on Thursday as anti-government protesters prepared for a third straight day of demonstrations. ((Ben Curtis/Associated Press))

Truckloads of police could be seen outside the journalists' syndicate building in Cairo. Police were also stationed on bridges and outside major hotels, the CBC's Margaret Evans said.

Shouts of "Hey Mubarak, leave!" and "Take your shame with you!" could be heard in the streets, Evans said.

Scores of protesters were seen outside the downtown offices of Egypt's lawyers' union, which has been a hot spot during this week's unrest.

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President Hosni Mubarak, left, has not been seen in public or heard from since the protests began Tuesday.

The demonstrations pose the most serious challenge to date to Mubarak's 30-year authoritarian rule. They culminate a steady rise in discontent that had already raised serious questions about how long he can keep his grip on power.

Mubarak, 82, has not said whether he will stand for another six-year term as president in elections this year.

He has never appointed a deputy and is thought to be grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him despite popular opposition.

Source: The Associated Press

There were two other small, peaceful protests by lawyers in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Toukh, north of Cairo.

At least seven people — including two police officers — have died in the protests, which began Tuesday.

There were two other small, peaceful protests by lawyers in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Toukh, north of Cairo.

President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party said Thursday it was ready to open a dialogue with the protesters.

But Safwat El-Sherif, the party's secretary general and a longtime confidant of Mubarak, offered no concessions to the protesters, and did not suggest that steps would be taken to address their complaints about poverty and unemployment.

"The minority does not force its will on the majority," he said.

Despite estimates of more than 1,000 arrests of protesters this week, as well as concerns of a potential police crackdown, online organizers continued to call for a mass rally for Friday.

'If people, in particular young people, if they want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down.' —Mohamed ElBaradei, pro-democracy advocate

On Wednesday, 5,000 people marched, chanted, waved flags and burned tires in downtown Cairo. By the end of the day, an estimated 2,000 people had been charged.

The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group, has thrown its support behind the demonstrations. If its significant support base joins Friday demonstrations, it will be a big boost to the grassroots movement calling for Mubarak's ouster.

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Prominent Egyptian reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt from Vienna. ((Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters))

The protesters were expected to be energized by the return of ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate and the country's top pro-democracy advocate. He has emerged as a prime challenger to Mubarak's regime.

In Vienna, ElBaradei told reporters at the airport on his way back to Egypt that he was seeking a regime change and was ready to lead the opposition movement.

"The regime has not been listening," he said. "If people, in particular young people, if they want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down. My priority right now ... is to see a new regime and to see a new Egypt through peaceful transition."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday he was watching events in Egypt "with great attention."

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"We're obviously watching developments there with great attention," said Harper, who was in Morocco for trade talks. "We want to see democratic development in that country as well. We're very supportive of that. At the same time, we want to see that happen in a way that's peaceful."

The White House also said Thursday the political unrest in Egypt would be an opportunity for Mubarak, who has not been seen since the outbreak of protests, to listen to citizens and address "necessary" political reform.

Speaking to CBC News from Cairo, Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics with the University of Pennsylvania, said it was likely the wave of demonstrations was inspired by protests in Tunisia.

"The key is really that people in Egypt sense that this is their moment. That Mubarak is old, his successor is yet to be determined. They're angry about the recently forged election, and they're inspired by the Tunisian example and about what's happening in Algeria and Jordan," Trager said.

With files from The Associated Press