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Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafiq resigns ahead of protests

By Steve Hendrix and William Wan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 8:01 PM

CAIRO - Under mounting pressure from protesters who have refused to decamp from central Cairo, Egypt's ruling military council announced Thursday that the country's prime minister had resigned.

The departure of Ahmed Shafiq, an ally of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, was a key demand of activists, who have called for huge new demonstrations Friday. But they have also demanded an end to the long-standing emergency law, the release of political prisoners and other reforms, and it was unclear whether his dismissal would appease them.

The Supreme Military Council used its Facebook page to announce that Shafiq had stepped down, and immediately replaced him with Essam Sharaf, an American-educated former transportation minister who is popular with anti-government activists.

Shafiq, a former air force officer installed by Mubarak days before he fled Cairo, was viewed by protesters as a hated leftover of the regime and a symbol of the slow pace of transformation. He had insisted as late as Wednesday night, on a national talk show, that he had no plans to leave.

In Tahrir Square, where protesters were already gathering, news of his departure was greeted as a victory. Crowds chanted as a man in a soccer jersey drew a thick red "X" over a portrait of Shafiq.

"We have asked for Shafiq's resignation from the very beginning. So I think it's great that they have finally listened," said Zyad el-Elaimy, 30, a key member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which helped plan the original protests. But he said the democracy movement would not stand down. "They want tomorrow and future protests to stop. But we are still planning the protest," he said.

Activists have trickled into Tahrir all week, reviving the carnival atmosphere of the uprising's early days. Tents of plastic, nylon and blankets have reappeared. By Thursday afternoon, the crowd had swelled to more than a thousand, with volunteers directing traffic and patting down new arrivals at makeshift checkpoints.

But for some, the council's announcement signaled a possible shift in the standoff that had emerged between protesters pushing for radical change and officials pleading for patience. Organizers said they were re-purposing Friday's protest, which they had dubbed a "Day of Determination," as a "Day of Celebration."

"I think this could change the dynamic," said Mustafa Kamel El Sayed, a longtime activist and Cairo University professor with close ties to protest organizers. "The council showed it is committed to realizing the goals of the revolution, and the young people have responded well."

The council of military officers has been struggling to respond to sustained public protests, which were nearly unheard of in the three decades of Mubarak's autocratic rule. They have beseeched activists to go home, pledging that reforms will continue. But the protesters have dug in, saying reforms are far from assured.

Worried citizens

As the revolution entered its second month, protesters and officials have vied for the support of everyday Egyptians. Many of them hail the changes but have grown weary of the unrest.

"I sell nothing from one day to the next," said Mohamed Nour, a perfume seller in Cairo's main bazaar. In his tiny shop, which is lined with jars filled with flower oils hand-pressed by his family, he displayed his empty sales ledger. "My family wants to eat."

Cellphone users get near-daily text messages from the council asking them to put pressure on the protesters to leave the streets. "Honest citizens should take responsibility and confront the irresponsible elements," said one text sent this week. "We are aware of the demands of the people and are working hard to realize them."

Some fear chaos, which Mubarak warned against for years as a way of bolstering support for his iron rule. Security forces were widely despised as a force of corrupt bullies, but their retreat in recent weeks has sparked unease.

"How can they be sure the children are safe?" said Maha Orabi as she waited to escort her brother home from a Cairo school this week. Classes resumed Sunday after a month-long disruption, but many families kept kids home. Orabi supports the revolution, she said. "But it is frightening."

There are increasingly visible fissures between worried citizens and protesters determined to keep up the pressure. On Monday, hundreds of Tahrir activists chanted at passersby: "Why don't you join us? Do you have all your rights?"

Earlier, a middle-aged worker had confronted a young man in the square. "Stop now," he said. "I think this is enough."

"We are the people who gave dignity back to Egypt," the young man retorted.

Welcome choice

Now both sides are waiting to see if Shafiq's removal will change the tone. The new prime minister, Sharaf, was effectively preapproved by activists, who included him on a list of acceptable candidates given to the council Sunday.

Sharaf, the son of a veterinarian, is a professor of engineering at Cairo University with a doctorate from Purdue University. He served as Egypt's transportation minister for two years, building a reputation as a competent and honest technocrat and launching an ambitious program to modernize transportation networks. He resigned in 2006, reportedly to protest Mubarak's failure to carry through with safety reforms, and he appeared in Tahrir last month to protest against his former boss.

Sharaf will form a new interim government in advance of elections later in the year. But he is not known to harbor political ambitions of his own, observers said.

"I would be very surprised if he wanted to be more than a temporary prime minister," said El Sayed, a fellow professor at the Cairo campus. "It was very courageous of him to take this position. It will be very difficult to succeed in these conditions."

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