The week’s death toll reached seven on Thursday, after two more protesters were shot dead in North Sinai, in the third day of nationwide anti-government protests.

The nationwide protests, which are calling for democracy, the ouster of President Hosny Mubarak and more employment opportunities, are some of the largest since Mubarak took power some 30 years ago.

Internet access was crippled on Thursday night and certain websites had been blocked entirely, including international news sites, Twitter, Facebook and Google’s Gmail email service. Text messaging had also been blocked.

Egypt’s protesters hope to emulate the Tunisian uprising that toppled president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14, after nearly 23 years in power.

But the calls have been met with violence. The two protesters in North Sinai died in an exchange of fire between protesters and riot police. The region is a swathe of land populated mostly by armed Bedouins, who were also calling for the release of hundreds of prisoners arrested in security sweeps in recent years.

New protests continued to pop up across the country, with the most recent reported late Thursday on Haram Street, one of Cairo’s main avenues. Reports put more than 1,000 protesters at the scene.

It was the first time there had been protests in this area, one of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods. Security forces tried to rush to the area, but were confounded in their attempts as the protesters moved to block traffic.

Meanwhile, Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei arrived in Cairo on Thursday in the face of widespread criticism that he called for protests from his residence in Vienna and only travelled to Egypt after three days of demonstrations.

He said “change will not come overnight”, describing it as “a process.” He also said he plans to take part in protests set to take place after mid-day Friday prayers.

And he gave credit to young protesters for demonstrating on Tuesday and said “a hand is stretched, but the regime needs to understand that change is absolutely needed.” “There is no going back,” he said of the protests.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency was mobbed by dozens of reporters upon his arrival.

However, there were no signs of the throngs of supporters who came out to see him when he flew in to Cairo last year to test the political waters for a possible presidential run.

Tensions are high ahead of what would be the fourth day of protests on Friday, this time with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, saying it would participate.

Mr. ElBaradei, who has indicated he would help head a transitional government should Mr. Mubarak step down as the protesters demand, has hinted in the past at running in opposition against Mr. Mubarak, but only if election laws favouring Mr. Mubarak were changed.

“Nothing works,” he said, commenting about past calls for regime change in Egypt.

But government officials insisted they were trying to meet the needs of the Egyptian people.

Safwat Sherif, speaker of the upper house of parliament and a leading figure in Egypt’s National Democratic Party, held a rare press conference on Thursday.

“We protect the country with full security and we stand strong for the country and we reassert that people’s calls are of the highest priority,” he said.

He also said that the party respects free speech, and the rights of youth to express their desires.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama said political and economic reforms are “absolutely critical” for Egypt’s future.

Obama, in a question-and-answer session on YouTube, said he has continued to press Mubarak to introduce reforms, while acknowledging the Egyptian leader has been a close ally on “a lot of critical issues” and a partner in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

“My main hope right now is, is that violence is not the answer in solving these problems in Egypt,” Mr. Obama said. “So the government has to be careful about not resorting to violence, and the people on the streets have to be careful about not resorting to violence.” Cairo, the scene of the largest protests on Tuesday, was relatively calm on Thursday. Protesters told the DPA they were preparing for demonstrations on Friday.

But the eastern port city of Suez continued to see violent protests after two people were shot dead by police on Tuesday.

Protesters there burnt the main police station and the town hall Wednesday evening, and called for an investigation into the deaths.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information condemned the Egyptian government for what it described as an “iron siege” on Suez.

The group said the government cut off all communications services and barred journalists from the city.

More clashes were reported between police and protesters in other cities nationwide.

Earlier in the week, two members of security died of injuries sustained in clashes, while a protester died in Cairo.

An estimated 1,000 people have been arrested over the past two days. Video of people being roughed up and thrown into security cars by police dressed as civilians was aired on pan-Arab television channels this week.

Reporters Without Borders urged the Egyptian authorities to allow journalists “to work without fear of being arrested or attacked by those who are supposed to protect them” after nearly 40 journalists were arrested in recent days.

Egypt’s stock market witnessed a dramatic plunge on Thursday with the EGX 30 index closing at 5,646 points, a 10.5-per-cent decline, with analysts attributing the fall to shattered investor confidence in Egypt’s stability after the demonstrations.

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