The Egyptian government this morning attempted to shut down internet and mobile phone services in major cities ahead of a massive demonstration against the Mubarak regime planned around Friday prayers later today (in the early hours of tomorrow morning Australian time).

Opposition figure Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of Atomic Energy Agency, arrived in Cairo overnight, having announced he would join the protests. The shutdown encouraged speculation the regime was preparing a massive crackdown, having warned against the planned Friday protests. Just before deadline, there was a report that security forces had been ordered to launch an operation against the Muslim Brotherhood, which, while initially reluctant to endorse the protests, has now swung its support behind them. Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members are said to have been arrested.

There had been speculation the Mubarak regime, rattled by the refusal of protestors to give up in the face of escalating violence from security forces, would shut down not merely internet and phone services but water and power as well. The government tried to shut down web access to Twitter, being used to broadcast information about protests, when they began on 25 January, but the block was easily circumvented by using non-browser Twitter apps.

Twitter, Facebook and blogs were extensively used to share information, photos and footage of protests and the violent reaction from security forces (including graphic footage of a protestor being gunned down by police). Protest organisers were also using Twitter and SMS to give police false information on where demonstrations would be held, then taking advantage of the diversion of resources to protest elsewhere.

This morning, there were claims internet access had been shut down throughout Egypt, not merely in Cairo and other major cities. However, net activist Jacob Applebaum (@ioerror), founder of the anonymisation project Tor, who has been tracking the outages, reported this morning that one network, SS7, had remained operational, while another, TE Data, appears to have come back online. There had earlier been speculation TE Data had cooperated with the government in shutting down internet access, and criticism of Vodafone for allowing its network to be shut down, but the circumstances in which the shutdown was implemented remain unclear.

Today looms as the greatest challenge for the Mubarak dictatorship in its 30 year existence, with protests — which have a strong ecumenical flavour — set to outstrip those of the last two days. The city of Suez, in particular, has witnessed almost permanent clashes between protestors and police, with some comparing it to a warzone where security checkpoints have been overrun and burnt. Many Egyptians appear convinced the regime is planning to massacre protestors.

The US government, however, has continued its support for Mubarak, with Vice President Joe Biden declaring overnight that Mubarak was not a dictator but a US ally who has been “very responsible.” While Biden is famous for his gaffes, his line barely differs from that of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, or for that matter that of the UK government, both of which have called for “all sides” to “exercise restraint”, a bizarre demand in the face of the violence meted out by Egyptian security forces.