With more protests planned, Egypt's prime minister steps down

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 3, 2011 

CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers announced the resignation Thursday of Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq — an apparent concession to opposition activists who are calling for a broad purge of former regime figures as Egypt plods toward a more democratic system.

A brief statement on the military's website said former transportation minister Essam Sharaf had been named the new prime minister and would soon form a caretaker cabinet to steer Egypt back to civilian authority.

The move came one day before thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets of Cairo and other major Egyptian cities to press for a shakeup of the military-led government amid persistent suspicions that the country is still being run by cronies of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from office on Feb. 11 after 30 years in power. Mubarak is now thought to be in the resort city of Sharm el Sheikh.

Getting rid of Shafiq, a former air force general who was appointed during Mubarak's final days in office, has been a chief demand of activists, who'd like to cleanse the government of all Mubarak-era holdovers.

"The NDP is still there and won't disappear," said Sara Hussein, 24, a human rights activist, referring to Mubarak's National Democratic Party. "They're reinventing themselves and reorganizing under the name of the revolution. We have to create a system that won't allow the NDP to come back."

In the days since Mubarak was deposed, Egypt has been run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose members were appointed by the former president.

Activists want to see an overhaul of the state security apparatus and the formation of a civilian body to rule in tandem with the Supreme Council. They hold mixed views, however, on what to do with Egypt's old constitution, which enshrined one-party rule. Some want to draft a new constitution, while others support the amendments put forth by a panel of legal experts that allow for greater political participation.

"Only half our demands have been met," said Seif Abou Zaid, 26, a protester. "Still, the issues of corruption, trying those involved in the revolution incidents, the emergency law, the conditional cabinet, the constitution and the state security apparatus are all issues that need to be (addressed)."

Sharaf isn't considered close to Mubarak and has limited ties to the country's military. With the exception of his service as transportation minister from 2004 to 2006, Sharaf, who holds a doctorate in civil engineering from Purdue University in Indiana, has spent the past 25 years as a professor at Cairo University.

Sharaf's appointment alone, however, is unlikely to dampen demands for further change.

As word of Shafiq's resignation spread, ordinary Egyptians debated the military's performance in coffee shops and other gathering spots. At a bookstore, one man was overheard asking the shopkeeper, "Hey, did you hear about Shafiq?" The shopkeeper's reply: "Yeah, and now the military has to kick out the rest of them, too."

Opposition factions have accused the military of working too slowly and in secrecy toward promised changes in preparation for elections in six months.

In downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, where masked commandos forcibly removed protesters over the weekend, the once-ubiquitous chants of "The army and the people, one hand" have faded.

To the consternation of those demanding speedy political reforms, the military has focused on restoring law and order to Egyptian streets, where the crime rate has spiked in the absence of the detested police of the former regime, some of whom have yet to return to their posts.

The lawlessness was underscored Thursday by a blog posting from Egypt's antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, who listed dozens of ancient Egyptian treasures that had been looted or vandalized since Mubarak's ouster. Hawass resigned Thursday from his newly created post.

Hawass wrote that since Feb. 11, the tomb of Ken-Amun near the city of Ismailiya has been destroyed and that looters even tried to steal a statue of Rameses II in Aswan, though archaeologists and guards at the site caught them.

"The Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt," Hawass wrote. "The situation looks very difficult today, and we are trying our best to ensure the police and army restore full protection to the cultural heritage of the country."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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