CAIRO Protesters rallied in Cairo on Wednesday to reject President Hosni Mubarak's timetable for quitting but pro-Mubarak forces were also gathering, setting the stage for a potentially volatile confrontation between the two.
The chant from Tahrir Square was pumped out from speakers: "We will not go, he will go," after Mubarak said late on Tuesday that he would not stand for a sixth term when a presidential election is held in September.
At least 1,500 people were in the central square, which has become a focal point for the protests and drew hundreds of thousands on Tuesday. Many had camped in tents and under blankets in defiance of a curfew.
Metres-long banners read: "The people demand the fall of the regime."
An Egyptian opposition coalition called on Wednesday for more protests and said it would only enter into a dialogue with Vice President Omar Suleiman if Mubarak stepped down.
But some ordinary Egyptians, tired of the disruption, appeared ready to accept Mubarak's concessions.
"We have waited on him for 30 years, can't we give him eight more months?" asked Mohamed Ahmed, a lawyer, in downtown Cairo.
"The president has tackled most of the youth demands and he had done a lot to the country and served it for so long. He is a hero of war and peace he deserves to leave with dignity," said another lawyer, Kamal Mohamed Mansour.
Many Egyptians have been shocked by the convulsions on their normally quiet streets. Living hand to mouth, they have felt the strain as protests disrupted services ranging from grocery stores to cash machines.
Some shops remained closed on Wednesday.
TIME FOR NORMAL LIFE
Egypt's army said in a statement the demands of the people had been heard and it was time for them to return to normal life.
"The army forces are calling on you ... You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life," a spokesman said.
The army has previously issued statements saying it would not use violence against protesters.
A senior official indicated that the government felt it had regained the momentum.
"I think it's over. We have demonstrations all over the country to support Mubarak. The minute (Mubarak) finished his speech we had 3,000 people under the (state broadcast) building. I think the mood is turning," he told Reuters.
State television reported the curfew had been shortened to run from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., instead of 3 p.m. to 8 a.m.
Dozens of Egyptians gathered just outside the army perimeter surrounding Tahrir on Wednesday, chanting "Our soul and blood we sacrifice for you Mubarak" and "No to destruction, give a chance to Mubarak". One sign read: "Yes, Yes, Mubarak".
In Suez, some 300 to 400 pro-Mubarak supporters carried Egyptian flags and banners saying "Yes to Mubarak", "Mubarak, you are in our hearts".
The organising committee which controls access to Tahrir Square was taking precautions for fear that pro-Mubarak groups might try to cause trouble there, organisers said.
At the checkpoint on the western side near Kasr el-Nil bridge, members of the committee prevented about 10 pro-Mubarak protesters from entering the square.
Similarly, on Talaat Harb Street to the northeast, the organisers made a human chain across the road. One of them said they had identified a group of state security people who had tried to enter Tahrir Square.
State television coverage of the demonstrations has flip-flopped from almost totally ignoring them in the first days to extensive coverage since Friday's mass "Day of Wrath".
Immediately after Mubarak spoke late on Tuesday, state television showed images of pro-Mubarak protesters in the square.
"The demonstrations I saw yesterday looked like they were orchestrated," said Mayan Fawaz, a 30-year-old PR professional, who saw nearly 2,000 pro-Mubarak demonstrations near the area of Cairo where she lives on Wednesday.
"If these people were really pro-Mubarak where on earth have they been the past week? People on the streets were saying these demonstrators were hired by the NDP (ruling party)," she said. (Reporting by Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Yasmine Saleh, Alexander Dziadosz, Jonathan Wright and Edmund Blair; Writing by Alison Williams, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)