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Million people urged to protest

A million people have been urged to take to the streets today to demand that Egypt's authoritarian leader step down as more signs emerged that army support for President Hosni Mubarak may be unravelling.

On Monday the military pledged not to fire on protesters as more than 10,000 people beat drums, played music and chanted slogans in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which has become the epicentre of a week of protests demanding an end to Mr Mubarak's three decades in power.

With organisers calling for a "march of a million people", there was an increasing feeling in the sprawling plaza - whose name means "liberation" in Arabic - that the uprising was nearing a decisive point.

"He only needs a push!" was one of the most frequent chants, and a leaflet circulated by some protesters said it was time for the military to choose between 82-year-old Mr Mubarak and the people.

The latest gesture by Mr Mubarak aimed at defusing the crisis fell flat. His top ally, the US, roundly rejected his announcement of a new government that dropped his highly unpopular interior minister, who heads police forces and has been widely denounced by the protesters.

Another concession came on Monday night, when Vice President Omar Suleiman - appointed by Mr Mubarak only two days earlier - went on state TV to announce the offer of a dialogue with "political forces" for constitutional and legislative reforms.

Mr Suleiman did not say what the changes would involve or which groups the government would speak to. Opposition forces have long demanded the lifting of restrictions on who is eligible to run for president to allow a real challenge to the ruling party, as well as measures to ensure elections are fair. A presidential election is due in September .

The Egyptian army statement, aired on state TV, said the powerful military recognised "the legitimacy of the people's demands" - the strongest sign yet that it is willing to let the protests continue and even grow as long as they remain peaceful, even if that leads to the fall of Mr Mubarak. If the president, a former air force commander, loses the support of the military, it would probably be a fatal blow to his rule.

For days, army tanks and troops have surrounded Tahrir Square, keeping the protests confined, but doing nothing to stop people from joining.

Military spokesman Ismail Etman said the military "has not and will not use force against the public" and underlined that "the freedom of peaceful expression is guaranteed for everyone". But he warned that protesters should not commit "any act that destabilises security of the country" or damage property.

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