Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafiq resigns ahead of protests

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By Steve Hendrix and William Wan
Friday, March 4, 2011

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."


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