Egyptian cabinet reshuffle fails to satisfy protesters

Egyptian protesters, who reoccupied Tahrir Square 10 days ago, say they want a change in policies – not just personalities – to show that the military rulers are serious about democratic reform.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptian protesters Hossam Isamail, right, and Ahmed Eskandar, write slogans at their tent in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, July 17. Dozen of demonstrators are on a hunger strike, demanding speedy trials for members of the security forces suspected in the killing of nearly 900 activists during the uprising and seeking a purge of the remnants of the old Mubarak regime. Arabic at left reads " hunger strike".

The Egyptian government's latest attempt to defuse protests – a cabinet reshuffle – has failed to satisfy the thousands who remain camped out in Tahrir Square, demanding more substantive change.

Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has reportedly replaced at least a dozen government ministers – about half the cabinet, marking a concession to protesters who, impatient with the pace of reform, reoccupied Tahrir 10 days ago. But protesters say they want new policies – not just new personalities – to show that the military council ruling the country is serious about getting rid of the old power structure and enacting democratic reform. Many vowed to stay put in their tents in the middle of the square.

“[The cabinet reshuffle] means nothing,” says Ahmed Salah, a member of one of the groups coordinating protests. “We don’t need to change names, we need to change the attitude of the military council. Because everything is in their hands.”

Swearing-in ceremony delayed

The interim government is largely powerless under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February. Mr. Salah sees the council’s hand in the fact that the Minister of Interior, highly criticized by protesters, survived the purge.

The new ministers include two well-known public figures who were opposed to the Mubarak regime and a number of lesser-known technocratic figures. Among those replaced were the foreign and finance ministers. But because the new ministers are not known to be associated with particular policies, the reshuffle is seen as unlikely to result in a dramatic shift in governance, says Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

The new cabinet members were due to be sworn in today but the ceremony was delayed to a later date, raising questions about whether there may be further changes in the cabinet line-up.

Carnival atmosphere in Tahrir

On Sunday night, the news had created barely a ripple in Tahrir. Music and impassioned speeches blasted from speakers at a half-dozen stages around the square, as a vendor made his way through the crowd with a tray of candied apples. The square had an almost carnival-like atmosphere, as families with young children ascended the stairs from the metro into air filled with the smell of popcorn and roasting nuts.

The reshuffle was the latest in a series of concessions aimed at appeasing protesters. Egyptian television Monday for the first time broadcast live the trial of a former regime official, Egypt’s former information minister Anas Al Fiqi. One of the protesters’ key demands has been quicker and more transparent trials for former regime officials, particularly Mubarak.

And last week the Interior Minister announced the early retirement of more than 600 senior police officers, some of whom were charged with ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising, and the relocation of 54 lower-ranked officers accused of killing protesters. But activists say firing some police officers – and simply relocating others – implicated in killing protesters is not a substitute for reform of a system long plagued by corruption and torture.

What would satisfy them, and make the protesters go home? Salah and many other protesters say they want to see concrete action like purging the Justice Ministry of judges accused of helping the Mubarak regime pull off fraudulent elections; reforming the ministry of interior; and imposing a higher minimum wage along with a maximum wage for government employees.

Until demands like those are met, Salah says he will stay in the square. His eyes are somewhat bloodshot from more than a week of near-sleepless nights, yet he says that his enthusiasm outweighs any exhaustion. “Staying in the street is the only way the military council will understand, they only way we [can] push them to do something,” he says.

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