Egypt's Prime Minister Shafiq steps down

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 was named the new prime minister and would soon form a caretaker cabinet to steer Egypt back to civilian authority.

Overshadowed by the revolts in Libya and Gulf Arab nations, Egypt is still reeling from the abrupt ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11. The military-led interim authority is struggling to restore order and meet protesters’ demands of political reform, fearing a return to the chaotic days of the uprising if the generals lose the public support they’ve long enjoyed.

Getting rid of Shafiq, a former air force officer who was appointed during Mubarak’s final days in office, was a chief demand for activists who’d like to cleanse the government of all Mubarak-era holdovers. Still, suspicions persist that Mubarak’s cronies are running the country from behind the scenes.

Thousands of protesters are expected to take to the streets of Cairo and other major cities after midday prayers Friday to reiterate their chief goals: an overhaul of the state security apparatus and the formation of a civilian body to rule in tandem with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Opposition activists hold mixed views on what to do with Egypt’s old constitution, which basically 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.

As news 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 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. The local news reports an unprecedented spike in the crime rate, and the detested policemen of the former regime have yet to fully return to their posts.