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Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog turned Egyptian reform campaigner, said he expected big demonstrations across Egypt on Friday, and that it was time for President Hosni Mubarak to go.
ElBaradei, 68, left Vienna, where he lives, for Cairo on Thursday to join a growing wave of protests against Mubarak inspired by Tunisia's overthrow of their authoritarian president.
He told Reuters he would not lead the street rallies, but that his role was "to manage the change politically".
The Arabic news station Al Arabiya quoted ElBaradei, who held a number of rallies to campaign for political reform in his homeland last year, as saying he was ready to take power for a transitional period if protesters asked him to do so.
ElBaradei's arrival might provide a focus for a protest movement that so far has no figurehead, although many activists resent his long absences over past months.
In a telephone interview, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency called for peaceful protests, and said any use of force by the authorities would "backfire badly".
"People broke the culture of fear and, once you break the culture of fear, there is no going back," ElBaradei said. "I think we will definitely see a change coming."
ElBaradei, who suggested he might run for president if democratic and constitutional change was implemented, made clear that he believed Mubarak should not stand for another term.
"He has served the country for 30 years and it is about time for him to retire," he said. "I think he has to declare that he is not going to run again."
"I expect that we will see a new team, and a new set-up, and a new democratic structure."
The next presidential election is due in September, and Mubarak, 82, has not said if he will run. Egypt's political rules make it hard for anyone other than the ruling party's candidate to stand, let alone win.
"Much, much worse"
ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, launched a campaign for political change last year, hoping his international stature could galvanise the opposition.
But many activists have since complained that he should have spent more time on the street than abroad.
He said there must first be a new constitution and other political and democratic reform, and that this should take place in a transition period of six months to a year, a process he said he hoped to help manage and support.
"My first priority is to get the country from point A to B, put in place a framework that ensure that we will have a functioning democracy," he said.
If, after that, "people want me to run I would not let them down, particularly the young people."
Al Arabiya ran a screen headline reading: "ElBaradei: ready to take up power for a transitional period if the street demanded it," but did not elaborate.
Demonstrations demanding the resignation of Mubarak, in power since 1981, have raged since Tuesday in several Egyptian cities, with the biggest clashes in Cairo and Suez.
The protests, unprecedented during Mubarak's rule of a state that is a key US ally, have seen police fire rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators throwing rocks and petrol bombs.
"They have been charging people, detaining people, but that will backfire ... use of violence will backfire badly," ElBaradei said.
A page on Facebook announcing Friday's protest gained 55,000 supporters in less than 24 hours.
"Tomorrow is going to be, I think, a major demonstration all over Egypt and I will be there with them," ElBaradei said. "I assume ... that there will be lots and lots of people."
Asked if he might be arrested on arrival in Cairo, he said any such move would make things "much, much worse for them".
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