By Ray Fleming

IT is probable that the protests against President Mubarak's regime in Egypt will reach a climax following Friday prayers today. Even on the spot it must be very difficult to predict what will happen and from a distance it is almost impossible. However, the return to Cairo yesterday of Mohammad ElBaradei offers a hope that a way can be found to bridge the dangerous gulf between the demonstrators and the government. It is certainly past time that Mubarak departs but his eventual replacement and the fate of his extensive supportive ranks will need careful negotiation if these events are not to result in a breakdown of everyday life in Egypt.

A transitional framework will be needed and ElBaradei yesterday offered his services in that role; his long years of international experience in charge of the UN's Atomic Energy watchdog would serve him in good stead. ElBaradei returned to his country of birth last year with talk of running for president against Mubarak in September but then virtually disqualified himself by saying he would stand only if electoral and constitutional reform took place first. Now the need is different and more urgent -- for someone who can hold the ring while the competing forces that are certain to emerge in the aftermath of the demonstrations identify themselves and their policies and at the same time ensure that whatever administrative structure remains after Mubarak's departure keeps functioning.