New Egyptian Prime Minister Vows To Rebuild

Egypt's new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf addressed thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. He's vowing to rebuild the country and work to meet the demands of the people.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

In Egypt today, the country's new prime minister joined cheering protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Essam Sharaf pledged to do everything in his power to meet their demands for democratic reforms. But he also pleaded for patience. Egypt is facing severe economic and security problems as strikes and protests continue. The prime minister urged protestors to turn their attention to rebuilding their country.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was there in Cairo.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: This afternoon's protest in Tahrir Square felt more like a victory parade as crowds of men hoisted the new Egyptian prime minister onto their shoulders and carried him around. Many here view Essam Sharaf as the first real popular choice not connected to the old regime, even though he was appointed by Egypt's military rulers to head the caretaker government and once served in former President Hosni Mubarak's cabinet.

Part of Sharaf's appeal is that he joined some of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square over the past two months, says protester and tour guide Amar Labib(ph).

Mr. AMAR LABIB (Tour Guide): Yeah, he has a good reputation. He's very well-known, and we love him.

Prime Minister ESSAM SHARAF (Egypt): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Sharaf returned their compliments. He told the protesters that he draws his legitimacy and determination from them.

Prime Minister SHARAF: (Through Translator) Therefore, my main goal will be to meet your demands. And if I can't, I will come back and join you here.

NELSON: One of the key demands is for Sharaf to dismantle the state security agency, which is blamed for some of the worst human rights violations during Mubarak's rule.

(Soundbite of chanting)

NELSON: In a move that startled some protesters, Sharaf joined in the chant for that demand.

But not everyone who heard the prime minister speak was persuaded things will change.

Ms. BADREYA KHALIL IBRAHIM(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Badreya Khalil Ibrahim accuses the military of continuing abusive practices the Egyptian security forces were notorious for under Mubarak.

Egyptian and Western human rights activists say Ibrahim's son Amr Abdallah al-Bahari was one of many protesters beaten up by soldiers. He is now in a military prison.

Protest organizer Salma Said(ph) says such cases make it vital for the new prime minister to free all political prisoners.

Ms. SALMA SAID: This shouldn't take time, and it's just by a phone call. He can release all the people who were arrested for saying their opinion. And if he did this, I am telling you, it's going to give a lot of hope to people here.

NELSON: But Sharaf will also have his hands full, trying to come up with a transitional government that can take Egypt through this turbulent period. At least one minister has already announced he won't serve under Sharaf. Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass complains the country's historic treasures are being looted while everyone is immersed in the upheaval.

Adding to the political debate is the latest announcement by Egypt's military rulers that a national referendum will be held on March 19th on controversial constitutional reforms. The changes are intended to ensure competitive elections and prevent future Egyptian presidents from ruling for three decades, like Mubarak did.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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