CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s military rulers appointed the first post-Hosni Mubarak prime minister Thursday, replacing an air force pilot close to the ousted leader in a bid to appease thousands of protesters who had threatened to renew the occupation of a central Cairo square.
The opposition hailed the decision as another victory for “people power” but many warned pressure must be maintained on the military to implement other democratic reforms, including an accountable police agency and a new constitution.
Leaders of the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to resign had been pressing the military to fire Ahmed Shafiq, arguing that a prime minister sworn in by the ousted leader should not stay in office. They also were angry that his Cabinet was filled with figures from the old regime.
The military’s official Facebook page said former Transport Minister Essam Sharaf had been chosen as prime minister and asked to form a caretaker Cabinet during the transition to civilian rule.
Activists say they had recommended the choice of Sharaf.
“First we ousted Mubarak. Second, we got rid of Shafiq. We have become again the owners of this country,” said Bassem Kamel, a member of the Youth Coalition, an umbrella group of activists who launched the protests Jan. 25.
Sharaf, who served in the Cabinet for 18 months between 2004 and the end of 2005, has endeared himself to the youth groups by visiting them in Cairo’s central Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, the uprising’s epicenter. An engineer, Sharaf also appeared to fit the image of a professional civil servant who after leaving office founded a group of like-minded scientists called “the age of science.”
“He is a reformer and was a vocal critic” of the old system, said Shady Ghazali, another protest leader.
The youth celebrated in the way that was the pillar of their uprising: on social networking sites. Soon after his appointment, the name of the new minister started trending on Twitter.
“We are writing the electronic revolutionary history. Long live Egypt,” wrote Abdel-Rahman Mohamed, a 20-year-old student.
The Youth Coalition also canceled a Friday sit-in in Tahrir Square calling for Shafiq’s resignation. Instead, there will be a rally to celebrate their latest victory and they invited Sharaf to deliver his oath in the square.
Pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei thanked the military for “listening to the people.”
“Today (the) old regime has finally fallen. We are on the right track,” ElBaradei said on his Twitter account. He is a likely presidential candidate who has returned to Egypt since the protests after a long absence that upset many of his supporters.
“Let us all get down to work and start rebuilding our country. We want the world to know that Egypt is open for business,” said ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the change represented “an ongoing process in Egypt,” demonstrating that officials are “responding to the aspirations of their people.”
The military’s prompt acceptance of Shafiq’s resignation shows the sensitivity of the generals to the demands of the uprising’s leaders and concern that long protests could complicate returning life to normal.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt has experienced a crime wave not seen in years, with a marked rise in armed robberies, arson and battles between rival criminal gangs over territory. Demoralized and hated by many for their perceived brutality against protesters, security forces have yet to fully take back the streets. They numbered around 500,000 on the eve of the protests.
Many believe the military should focus on restoring law and order in the country of 80 million people.
Since it took charge of managing Egypt’s affairs on Feb. 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces promised to hand power over to a new government and elected president within six months. It disbanded both houses of parliament and promised to repeal the emergency laws, though only when conditions permit.
The council also appointed a committee to amend the now-suspended constitution to allow for elections.
But many are concerned the military rulers are moving too slowly.
“They do respond to pressure but they make sure it is on their own pace,” said activist and blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah. “We want decentralized democracy. They will resist. They want it highly centralized to keep control.”
The military has yet to tackle the more complicated issues of dissolving the former ruling party and local councils, and restructuring security agencies— seen as the main tool for propping up Mubarak’s regime.
There has been no release of political prisoners or prosecution of security officials behind the deaths of protesters — key opposition demands.
On Thursday, two leading Muslim Brotherhood figures were released on medical grounds after serving almost two-thirds of a seven-year sentence.
One of the two, Khayrat el-Shater, the brotherhood’s chief strategist, said he expects the charges of money laundering and terrorism against him to be dropped because they violated international legal standards.
“We understand these trials were imposed on the military before by the tyrant Mubarak. But now we won’t find them any more excuses. They should drop all these sentences,” he told The Associated Press after his release.
The military, however, continued to be criticized for its human rights record. The New-York based Human Rights Watch said the new rulers use military tribunals to prosecute dozens of civilians, all charged with criminal offenses, including weapons possession and curfew violations.
“Egyptian military authorities are continuing one of the worst practices of the Hosni Mubarak government by prosecuting civilians in military tribunals,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.