CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s new prime minister told thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square on Friday he was committed to the goals of their revolution and promised to take to the streets in protest if he could not deliver.
Egypt’s military rulers designated Essam Sharaf prime minister on Thursday, meeting demands for the removal of Ahmed Shafiq in a step seen as an attempt to soak up anger that has fueled protests since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down.
Mubarak, toppled on February 11 by a wave of mass demonstrations, appointed Shafiq in his last weeks in the presidency. The military council to which Mubarak handed power is now charting the country’s course toward elections.
But the army faces internal security problems due to people’s lingering suspicion of state security - a branch of the police force infamous for abuses - which on Thursday came under unprecedented attack in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Some 200 protesters stormed Alexandria’s state security headquarters after earlier clashes with police, gaining control of its lower floors and driving police officers to hide in the upper floors of the building.
The protesters, who demand the abolition of state security, threw petrol bombs with police, who fired live shots at them, critically wounding a 26-year-old protester in the chest, witnesses said. He was taken to hospital.
The military council has set a March 19 date for a referendum on constitutional amendments that will open up competition for the position of the presidency held by Mubarak for three decades, the government announced on Friday.
The constitutional reforms, a milestone on what Egyptians hope is their road to democracy, will stop any president from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms — a major change that will serve as an example in a region of autocrats.
Analysts say the military, keen to avoid more protests, appears to have become more responsive to the demands of reformists still pushing for deeper changes and worried about a “counter revolution” by remnants of Mubarak’s administration.
Sharaf’s name had been recommended as a candidate for the post of prime minister by leading reformist Mohamed ElBaradei. Sharaf was also supported by youth activists demanding change.
“I am here to draw my legitimacy from you. You are the ones to whom legitimacy belongs,” Sharaf told thousands of people who had gathered in Tahrir Square — the epicenter of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak.
“I have been entrusted with a heavy mission and need patience, will and resolve,” he said.
“The mission that I am trying to realize, with all my heart, is your goals,” he continued, adding that the day when he could not, he would join the protesters in the square.
“Take the oath, take the oath, take the oath,” chanted the crowd, urging Sharaf to take the oath of office in front of them. He declined to do so before being carried away on protesters’ shoulders.
He addressed protester demands for the reform of security services whose reputation for brutality had helped fuel the revolt against Mubarak.
In Alexandria police had earlier used tear gas to disperse protesters and a car was set on fire, witnesses said. “Many people hate the police force in state security because they are associated with torture,” Sally Mekawi, a protester said.
“If this problem is not sorted out soon, the election season will be full of danger and trouble. Most of the streets don’t have police guarding them,” she added.
Many say Egypt’s state security headquarters hold secret cells where detainees are interrogated and tortured by police.
In Tahrir Square, Sharif said the police should be in the service of citizens.
Sharaf’s appearance in Tahrir Square showed “political intelligence,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political analyst at al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“It is a good start but whether the masses will accept him still needs time,” he said. Sharaf is expected to make changes to the cabinet in which the ministries of foreign affairs, the interior and justice remain in the hands of Mubarak appointees.
Ayman Nour, an opposition figure, said Sharaf was “on the right track.”
“But we wished he had spoken about his agenda and his plans about emergency law and the state security establishment,” Nour, who ran against Mubarak for the presidency in 2005, said.
Egypt’s reform movement wants the state of emergency lifted — something the military council has promised to do before elections. The military council is also facing calls for a change to the timeline it has set for elections.
“I think that possibly when the military took this on they had hoped it would be a one, two, three: ‘You get your amendments, we’ll have these two elections and we’re gone,’” a Western diplomat said.
“But it seems the people of Egypt need more, so bit by bit, we are seeing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces having to grapple with this.”
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Marwa Awad and Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria; writing by Tom Perry, editing by Peter Millership and Philippa Fletcher