The Egyptian government resisted growing pressure on Thursday from key ally the United States and from a still energetic popular protest movement, both demanding radical and immediate political change.
Growing concern among the business community and the wider population about the economic impact of more than two weeks of disruption is adding to strains facing the cabinet appointed 10 days ago by President Hosni Mubarak to try to stave off the unprecedented challenge to his 30 years of one-man rule.
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The army -- which has provided Egypt's leaders for six decades -- continues to stand by, overseeing and praised by pro-democracy demonstrators encamped in Cairo, while promising to help restore normal life and maintain political stability.
The White House said once again on Wednesday that Egyptian ministers must do more to meet the demands of protesters, who want an immediate end to Mubarak's 30 years of one-man rule and sweeping legislative changes.
Mubarak's government hit back at what it called attempts to "impose" American will on a loyal Middle East ally, saying rapid reforms would be too risky.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, a survivor of the reshuffle Mubarak undertook in a vain attempt to staunch the protests, told U.S. broadcaster PBS he was "amazed" by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's urging an immediate end to the emergency law Mubarak has long used to curb opposition.
"When you speak about prompt, immediate, now -- as if you are imposing on a great country like Egypt, a great friend that has always maintained the best of relationship with the United States -- you are imposing your will on him," Aboul Gheit said.
The new friction in an alliance long nurtured with billions of dollars in U.S. aid was a reminder of how much has changed in Cairo in two weeks, of how much is uncertain both of Egypt's future and the future of U.S. influence over a Middle East whose autocratic rulers are struggling to contain social discontent.
Since protests began on January 25, partly inspired by the overthrow of another Arab strongman in Tunisia, President Barack Obama's administration has trodden a sometimes hazy line between support for a key ally in Washington's conflict with militant Islam and backing for those demanding democracy.
It has stopped short of endorsing calls for Mubarak, 82, to quit immediately. He said last week he would step down in September when an election is due.
But U.S. officials have also voiced irritation with the pace of promised reforms, supporting the protesters in their hope of immediate, concrete change.
Pro-democracy protesters consolidated a new encampment around Cairo's parliament building and the main focus of the opposition, Tahrir, or Liberation, Square remained crowded.
Organizers were looking forward to another major push on the streets on Friday when protesters said they plan to move on to the state radio and television building.
Four people were killed and several suffered gunshot wounds in clashes between security forces and some 3,000 protesters in a desert province far from Cairo on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It appeared to be the most serious clash with official forces since January 28, when police all but disappeared from Egyptian streets after they had beaten, teargassed and fired on protesters. Last week, there was bloodshed in Cairo when Mubarak loyalists in plain clothes attacked protesters.The armed forces have a key role to play.
U.S. officials have praised the way the army has permitted and, largely, protected anti-government demonstrations -- a point cited in defense of continuing aid from Washington even as relations with Mubarak's government deteriorate.
Alexander Vershbow, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told a conference in Israel, "What we are focusing on right now is the stabilizing role of the military as an institution that really emanates from the people, that is playing an impartial, neutral role in the current situation and which has managed to maintain the respect of the Egyptians, whatever their political orientation."
Vice President Omar Suleiman, a former general and intelligence chief, has spearheaded talks with opposition groups including Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood. Criticized in Washington for suggesting Egypt was not ready for democracy, Suleiman has said there is a road map to hand over power.
But protesters have been unmoved, and opposition groups do not want elections under what they say are unfair existing laws.
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