Egypt's government has attempted to prevent a reinvigorated uprising against Hosni Mubarak taking root by claiming that a detailed timetable had been drawn up to replace the president.
Hundreds of thousands crammed into Cairo's Tahrir Square last night for the largest demonstration since the uprising began more than two weeks ago. It overshadowed fresh concessions from Omar Suleiman, Egypt's powerful new vice-president.
Mr Suleiman attempted to placate opposition groups with a hint that Mr Mubarak would yield some powers before elections in September. The president, who has held office for 30 years, has already promised not to contest the poll.
Promising there would be no reprisals against the protesters, Mr Suleiman said: "A clear roadmap has been put in place with a set timetable to realise the peaceful and organised transfer of power."
But Mr Suleiman, who had already provoked anger on Monday with a claim that Egypt was not ready for democracy, fuelled doubts over the regime's sincerity by failing to give details of the timetable.
Instead a committee consisting mainly of senior judges was unveiled to draw up constitutional reforms with the guarantee that a second body would monitor the implementation of proposed changes.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, offered a sharp rebuke to the man that London and Washington want to steer through reforms while Mr Mubarak sees out his term. He said: "I don't think that in any way squares with what those seeking greater opportunity and freedom think is a timetable for progress."
Western allies are uncertain about Mr Suleiman's commitment to genuine reform. A Western diplomat said: "It would be disastrous if the regime was looking to string out this process just to take the sting out of the protests."
In the past few days, Mr Suleiman has spoken to British Prime Minister David Cameron and more than once to Joe Biden, the US vice-president. His efforts to appease the opposition without giving in to demands for Mr Mubarak to go immediately offer the West the best hope of an orderly transition.
The constitution requires elections within 60 days, a rule that favours the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best organised opposition group. Yet among the protesters there is great distrust for the new vice-president, who is seen as presiding over an intelligence service that was instrumental in keeping Mr Mubarak in power.
There is also suspicion about his close working relationship with the CIA and Israel. (© Daily Telegraph, London)