Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak huddled with his new government for the first time on Saturday, looking for ways to defuse a popular uprising which, on its 12th day, showed no signs of abating.
The turmoil in Cairo loomed large over a meeting in Munich, Germany of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet, where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the region was confronting "a perfect storm of powerful trends".
At the same time, Clinton praised the "restraint" shown by the Egyptian security forces during a mass demonstration on Friday, billed as the "day of departure" for Mubarak by the protesters.
It is believed that at least 300 people have been killed, and thousands injured, since the protests began on January 25, the United Nations has said.
With big crowds swelling anew in Tahrir Square, epicentre of a stubborn campaign to get Mubarak to stand down immediately, the longtime president met for the first time with the government he had sworn in five days earlier.
Present were his new prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, the ministers of petroleum, trade, finance and social solidarity, and the head of the central bank, the state MENA news agency reported.
In northern Sinai, a pipeline sending Egyptian gas to Jordan was attacked, officials said, prompting gas supplies to Israel to be halted as well. But it was unclear if the attack had any link to the anti-Mubarak movement.
Gunfire was heard in Tahrir Square in the early hours of Saturday as several thousands protesters spent a chilly night alongside Egyptian army tanks, regarded as protection from riot police or pro-Mubarak mobs.
Witnesses said the gunfire were warning shots fired by soldiers on the nearby October bridge over the River Nile to stop a clash between pro- and anti-Mubarak groups.
The sound of some of the tanks in front of the Egyptian Museum starting up their engines later in the morning prompted dozens to immediately sit down around them to prevent them from moving.
"The army and the people are two-into-one," crowds chanted, as soldiers bearing AK-47 assault rifles stood in a row a few metres (yards) away, blocking the way to the landmark museum.
"We are sitting here to stop the army from removing our barricade" composed of charred police cars, said protester Mohammed Gamal, 24, who held a blue plastic tube as protection against thugs.
Mubarak, 82, whose three decades as leader of the Arab world's most populous nation went unchallenged until now, has said he is "fed up" with his job, but prefers to stay in power until September while calm is restored.
But protesters -- inspired by the downfall of Tunisia's longtime president last month -- wants Mubarak out immediately, while the European Union and the United States are stepping up pressure for a transition to begin.
Citing unnamed US and Egyptian officials, the New York Times reported Saturday that new vice president Omar Suleiman and senior Egyptian military leaders are exploring ways for Mubarak to make a graceful exit.
Rather than go immediately, the sources said, Mubarak's powers would be scaled back, enabling the creation of a transitional government headed by Suleiman, the former intelligence chief.
That government would in turn negotiate, with opposition figures, amendments to Egypt's constitution and other democratic changes.
In Munich for the Quartet meeting, the US secretary of state said the Middle East "is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends," including rampant unemployment among its young people.
"This generation is rightly demanding that their governments become more effective, more responsive, and more open," Clinton told leaders and senior officials from Europe, Russia and Afghanistan.
"The status quo is simply not sustainable," she added. "Across the region, there must be clear and real progress toward open, transparent, fair, and accountable systems."
The Quartet -- comprising Russia, the United States, the European Union and United Nations -- is meeting this weekend to explore ways of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
But their meeting in the German city was haunted by concern that regime change in Egypt -- the only Arab nation besides Jordan to have signed a peace treaty with Israel -- might undermine that quest.