Egypt’s new prime minister joined the crowds at Tahrir Square Friday in his first public appearance, receiving a warm welcome as he acknowledged the work of the people in achieving a revolution in Egypt.
“I am here because I draw my legitimacy from you," said Essam Sharaf, a US-educated civil engineer, eliciting cheers from tens of thousands gathered here.
Appointed yesterday after popular protests forced the resignation of Ahmed Shafiq, an associate of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Sharaf will lead a transitional government until new elections are held in several months.
The sight of the prime minister in the midst of a crowd of thousands was new for Egyptians, some of whom carried him on their shoulders up to the stage. Equally historic was the fact that a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed el-Beltagy, stood on the stage next to Sharaf. Under the previous administration, the Islamist group was officially banned from politics and many members were jailed and abused.
The crowd cheered Sharaf, who briefly served in Mubarak's government as transportation minister from 2004-06. But they also chanted “the people want the fall of the state security,” the much feared and hated security apparatus accused of egregious human rights abuses under Mubarak.
Sharaf acknowledged their demands and distanced himself from his predecessor, Mr. Shafiq, who had appeared tone deaf in the face of such cries.
"I pray to God that I see an Egypt where free opinions are voiced outside prison cells and security agencies serve the nation,” he said. He urged the protesters to begin rebuilding Egypt, and, repeating a popular new slogan, said to the crowd: “Lift your head up high, you’re an Egyptian.”
'Our first impression is good'
Sharaf's appointment by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is running the country until new elections are held, is an attempt to quell the public protests that have continued since Mubarak was ousted from power Feb. 11. Protesters want to see more systemic change.
They urged Sharaf to take his oath of office there in Tahrir Square, which he did not. But Sharaf appeared to have made the right first steps in his appearance, although many in the crowd said they would still wait to see if he would follow through.
“Our first impression of Essam Sharaf is very good,” says protester Mahmoud Adel. “But we’re still waiting.” He says he wants to see who Sharaf names to be in his cabinet, whether he dissolves the state security apparatus, and if he ends the emergency law.
“We’ve come a long way, and we won’t just trust someone without seeing some changes first,” says Mr. Adel.
Mass protests scaled back to one day a week
Hardcore protesters still living in tents in the center of the square say they will not decamp until they see change with their own eyes.
But others have acknowledged that change won't come overnight. Many protesters said they would heed calls from a coalition of youth leaders to only protest on Fridays, and go back to their normal routines during the week, in order to give the new government some time to show results.
Ahmed Fathy, who came with his wife and two children, says he was impressed that Sharaf came to Tahrir. “It’s a good thing that his first act as prime minister was to take [his] legitimacy from the people of Egypt,” he says. “Ahmed Shafiq was not speaking to the people. His nose was always in the sky.”