LONDON – Egypt's government must begin political reforms immediately and end attacks on protesters, European leaders demanded Wednesday, hardening their position on President Hosni Mubarak's future amid chaotic violence in Cairo.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said work toward a new Egyptian government must be "rapid and credible, and it needs to start now," while French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that change must commence "without delay."
After talks with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in London, Cameron raised fears that violence which broke out in Egypt's capital may have been stirred by Mubarak loyalists.
Several thousand supporters of Mubarak, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, attacked anti-government protesters Wednesday in Cairo, hours after Mubarak rejected demands that he should step down immediately.
"If it turns out that the regime in any way has been sponsoring or tolerating this violence, that would be completely and utterly unacceptable," Cameron said. "These are despicable scenes we are seeing and they should not be repeated."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the outbreak of violence in Cairo raised "the pressing question as to whether the political leadership in Egypt has understood the necessity of fast democratic rebuilding."
The chaos in Cairo, in which the two sides pelted each other with stones and some foreign journalists were attacked, was the first significant violence after more than a week of peaceful anti-government protests.
"I once again urge restraint to all sides," Ban said. "Any attack against peaceful demonstrators is unacceptable and I very strongly condemn it."
Earlier Wednesday, Cameron told lawmakers in Britain's House of Commons that Egypt's government must act quickly to assure people significant changes will take place, and prevent widespread unrest. "The more they can do with a timetable to convince people it is true, the more the country can settle down to a stable and more democratic future," Cameron said.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday he had told Mubarak that Egypt's transition to a new government must begin at once, and must include opposition parties. The 82-year-old Mubarak rejected protesters' demands that he step down immediately, ending nearly 30 years in office, but said he would not seek re-election in the fall.
In a statement on Wednesday, the White House said it "deplores and condemns the violence."
Civil liberties groups also condemned the attacks on demonstrators.
"The army has failed in its commitment to protect peaceful protesters," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, of Amnesty International. "(It) begs the question whether they have orders not to interfere," she said.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the 27-nation bloc has been "very clear that Mr. Mubarak has to respond to the will of the people and that the demonstrations are a manifestation of that will."
In recent days, the EU has been criticized for being too timid in supporting pro-democracy demonstrations and for trailing behind the U.S. in distancing itself from Mubarak's regime.
Unlike the United States and a number of other countries, the EU has not called on its citizens to leave Egypt. But a number of European tour operators have started carrying out plans to evacuate their clients. About 50,000 Europeans — mostly tourists — are believed to still be in Egypt.
In Paris, Sarkozy said in a statement that a transition is necessary "to respond to the desire for change and renewal forcefully expressed by the population."
The French leader has been criticized for failing to strongly back the Egyptian protesters and for appearing to support the regime of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled by mass protests last month.
Westerwelle called Mubarak's announcement that he would not run for a new term "a step that clears the way for a new political beginning" and said changes should not be "delayed or postponed."
He demanded Egypt's security forces show restraint amid violence in Cairo. "Any further escalation of the situation must absolutely be avoided; gangs of thugs must immediately be stopped," Westerwelle said.
"Putting down the protests by violence is not acceptable for Germany and the international community," he added, after speaking by phone Wednesday with a possible Mubarak successor, Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
Sweden's outspoken Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was more blunt: "The Mubarak era in Egyptian politics is over."
Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at the University of Oxford, said it is unlikely intimidation by armed gangs would allow Mubarak to extend his presidency until an election scheduled in the autumn.
"I can't imagine intimidation working right now," Rogan said. "I don't think there's anything Mubarak can do to make people wait until September. The use of force is really embittering people against this regime."
Lekic reported from Brussels. Geir Moulson and Greg Keller in Berlin, Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.