Interim Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf made sweeping changes to his Cabinet on Sunday in a move to calm nine days of protests in Tahrir Square against the nation's ruling military council and the slow pace of political reform.
Sharaf promised last week to reshuffle his government and purge the Interior Ministry of police officers and top officials accused in the deaths of more than 800 protesters during the crackdown on the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February.
News of the Cabinet shake-up came hours before conflicting reports surfaced over Mubarak's health. The former president's lawyer said the 83-year-old Mubarak had suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma. The account was quickly denied by officials at the hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik where Mubarak has been staying since April. Doctors quoted by state media said Mubarak's condition was stable after a drop in blood pressure.
The former leader's health has been a pressing concern for many Egyptians, who believe Mubarak is maneuvering to delay his Aug. 3 trial on allegations of financial corruption and ordering the killing of protesters.
"Every now and then we hear some development about Mubarak's health from his lawyer and then medical officials come out and deny it," said Mahmoud Ouda, one of the protesters in Tahrir Square. "We don't know who to believe anymore and that's why we want him to be tried as quickly as possible. We don't want someone coming out and saying he's too ill to be taken to court."
Sharaf's new Cabinet includes Mohamed Kamel Omar in place of Mohamed Orabi as foreign minister; Hazem Beblawi to replace Samir Radwan as finance minister, and Ahmed Fekri in place of Samir Sayad as trade minister. The biggest surprise was the removal of Zahi Hawass as minister of antiquities. The reputation of Hawass, who was known for his flamboyance, trademark hat and appearances on National Geographic documentaries, had dimmed over questionable business deals and his close relationship with the Mubaraks.
The Cabinet appointments follow the firing of more than 600 top police officials in recent days. Sharaf has been under enormous pressure as activists and political groups have accused him of lacking the power to force the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to carry out the goals of the revolution.
Many protesters, who started their sit-in at Tahrir Square on July 8, have called for him to step down. The political turmoil illustrates the limited power of Sharaf's military-appointed interim government wields in a country ruled by generals. This was underscored over the weekend when a Supreme Council official told the Egyptian media that under the transitional constitution, new Cabinet appointments require the military's approval.
News of the Cabinet resignations and sweltering summer temperatures appear to have eased the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The number of protesters camped there has dwindled from thousands to hundreds. But activists, who heckled a military official attempting to address them Saturday, said they would remain in the square until the army limits its power.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.