Successfully pressing for the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq this week did not stop Egypt's protesters from turning out en masse in Cairo Friday.
Shafiq, who was appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the protests, stepped down on Thursday, hours before opposition groups had announced another round of extended protests to demand his removal. The former air force commander and aviation minister was under pressure as the "bosom friend of Mubarak," in the words of opposition figure Ayman Nour, to quit his post following Mubarak's Feb. 11 exit. Mohamed ElBaradei, another leading opposition figure, also had called for him to step down. "Remnants of old regime leading transition to democracy is an oxymoron. Enough of this farce! Egypt deserves better," he said via Twitter.
The military council running Egypt replaced Shafiq with Essam Sharaf, 59, a former transportation minister who took part in mass demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square. On Friday Sharaf appeared before an estimated 10,000 demonstrators who turned out in the square where they successfully held vigil to secure Mubarak's downfall. Sharaf vowed to respond to the continuing demands of protesters, which include the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. "I am here because I get my legitimacy from you," he told the crowd. But Sharaf pleaded for patience in the transition as the crowd repeatedly interrupted him with chants of "We are with you."
The U.S.-educated Sharaf, who holds two post-graduate engineering degrees from Purdue University, served 18 months in Mubarak's Cabinet between 2004 and 2005. But he represents a younger generation of progressive leadership needed in the Middle East, according to former U.S. mentors. Purdue engineering professor Kumares Sinha told the Associated Press that Sharaf is "a man who can change things" and "wants to advance the Arab world."
Sharaf appeared before the crowd alongside Mohamed el-Beltagy, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood and a former member of parliament. Beltagy has criticized constitutional reforms proposed by an advisory council to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which currently runs the country. He is among those pushing for reforms that will clear a way for the Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed as a political party, to be reconstituted and allowed to run in upcoming elections. He has also supported the candidacy of the former UN atomic energy head ElBaradei.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced that a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments would be held on March 19 to prepare for parliamentary elections in June and presidential elections in August, with a newly elected president handed authority in October.
Despite overwhelming calls for democratic reforms, Coptic Christians continue to suffer discrimination. Over 10,000 Copts and supporters staged a demonstration on Monday in Upper Egypt to call for the resignation of the provincial governor after he ordered the demolition of a church community center serving the handicapped in the village of Deir Barsha. More than 200 Copts later staged a sit-in at the center, saying they would not leave until the governor revoked his demolition order. The building belongs to the Coptic diocese and serves children from 75 villages in the Minya governorate.