Foreign Secretary William Hague has warned Egypt is in danger of falling into the hands of extremists as tensions in the country build.
The military had staged a show of strength on the sixth day of mass demonstrations calling for the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule. But protesters show no sign of giving way despite more than a hundred deaths, and huge crowds are again roaming the streets of major cities.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave the strongest hint yet that Washington does not expect its former friend to cling to power.
“We want to see an orderly transition so that no-one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought-out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government,” Mrs Clinton said.
Mr Hague stressed Egypt was a sovereign nation and Britain was not trying to pick who should be president. But he told Sky News’s Murnaghan programme there had to be a shift to an “open and democratic society”.
“What matters is that the process takes place, whatever that means for President Mubarak personally, whatever he judges that means for him personally,” the Foreign Secretary said. “It is important for him to initiate that transformation and that broadly based government, and that is what we would like to see.
“That is far preferable of course to Egypt falling into the hands of extremism or a more authoritarian system.”
Yesterday, Mr Hague indicated that the UK would be concerned if 82-year-old Mr Mubarak was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative religious group seen as one of the main opposition forces.
Gangs of armed men were reported to have stormed four jails across Egypt yesterday, freeing hundreds of Muslim militants and thousands of other inmates.
The UK and US have now advised their nationals to leave volatile areas if possible after police retreated.
The army sent hundreds more troops and armoured vehicles on to the streets of Cairo and other cities, and military jets have been flying low over the main square in the capital.But the troops appeared unwilling to take action against gangs of young men with guns and large sticks who were smashing cars and robbing people.
At least one Nile-side shopping mall in Cairo was on fire after being looted.
David Cameron personally spoke to the embattled president last night to express “grave concern” about violence against the anti-government dissidents.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister urged Mr Mubarak to “take bold steps to accelerate political reform and build democratic legitimacy” rather than attempt to repress dissent.
In a separate joint statement with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Cameron said: “The Egyptian people have legitimate grievances and a longing for a just and better future.”
Mr Mubarak’s prospects seem increasingly bleak after his efforts to contain the crisis by sacking his cabinet and appointing a new deputy failed. It has been reported some of his family have already fled the country.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading opposition moderate and potential president, insisted the situation was “total chaos” and demanded the president’s immediate departure. He was said to have joined the crowds in Cairo’s main Liberation Square last night.
Protesters in Egypt have been emboldened by the success of the recent uprising in Tunisia which saw President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali ejected after 23 years in power.
The pace of events has shocked observers, and led to speculation that other countries such as Yemen could be next to experience popular unrest.