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Protests against Egyptian president spread

CAIRO (Reuters) - Web activists called for mass protests across Egypt on Friday to end President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule after protesters clashed with security forces late into the night in the eastern city of Suez.

Emboldened by this month’s revolt in Tunisia that toppled its long-serving leader, Egyptians have staged mass protests since Tuesday in an unprecedented outburst of anger against Mubarak’s strong-handed rule.

“This is a revolution,” one 16-year-old protester said in Suez late on Thursday. “Every day we’re coming back here.”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who returned to Egypt from Vienna on Thursday, has called for Mubarak to resign and said he would join the protests on Friday.

A page on Facebook social networking site listed more than 30 mosques and churches where protesters were expected gather.

“Egypt’s Muslims and Christians will go out to fight against corruption, unemployment and oppression and absence of freedom,” the page said, adding more than 70,000 had signed up online.

Late into Thursday night in Suez, police fired tear gas at protesters who hurled stones and petrol bombs. Fires burned in the street, filling the air with smoke.

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At another rally near Giza on the outskirts of Cairo, police used tear gas to break up hundreds of protesters late at night.

Security forces shot dead a Bedouin protester in the north of Egypt’s Sinai region on Thursday, bringing the death toll to five.

The United States, Egypt’s close ally and major aid donor, is concerned Islamic radicals could exploit continuing anger.

In his first comments on the unrest, President Barack Obama was careful to avoid any sign of abandoning Mubarak but made it clear that he sympathized with demonstrators.

“...I’ve always said to him that making sure that they are moving forward on reform -- political reform, economic reform -- is absolutely critical to the long-term well-being of Egypt,” Obama said in comments broadcast on the YouTube website.

“You can see these pent-up frustrations that are being displayed on the streets.”

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As in many other countries across the Middle East, Egyptians are frustrated over surging prices, unemployment and an authoritarian government that tolerates little dissent.

Many of them are young. Two thirds of Egypt’s 80 million people are below the age of 30, and many of them have no jobs. About 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than a $2 a day.

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Facebook, Twitter and other social media have been key tools in drumming up support for protests, advising of locations and even giving tips on how to avoid arrest or cope with tear gas.

“Friday will be the day that we emerge victorious over the tyrants and the despots that have governed for too long,” user Abo Mostafa wrote on Twitter.

“We have started the path to freedom and we will not stop,” another user, Ali M, said on Facebook.

Late on Thursday, some Facebook users in Egypt reported disruptions to the service and said they were unable to use it. Earlier, Facebook said it had seen a drop in traffic from Egypt.

The government has urged Egyptians to act with restraint on Friday but say they guarantee freedom of expression.

Safwat Sherif, secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party, told reporters:

“We hope that tomorrow’s Friday prayers and its rituals happen in a quiet way that upholds the value of such rituals ... and that no one jeopardizes the safety of citizens or subjects them to something they do not want.”

Government officials have warned youths against letting the Muslim Brotherhood opposition group and others exploit the protest for “hidden agendas.”

The Brotherhood, a banned group, has kept a low profile in the demonstrations. A senior group member said the government was trying to find a scapegoat. Brotherhood members are regularly rounded up.

ElBaradei, 68, who has been campaigning for change since last year, said suggestions that Egypt’s government was the only bulwark against Islamist extremism were “obviously bogus.”

He told reporters at Cairo’s airport he would take part in Friday’s protests, but added: “I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act.”

Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Marwa Awad in Cairo, Alexander Dziadosz in Suez; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Maria Golovnina