By Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq resigned on Thursday and a former transport minister was picked to appoint a new government after pro-democracy activists demanded a purge of Hosni Mubarak's old guard from the cabinet.
Shafiq was appointed prime minister by Mubarak in his final days in office before he was ousted on February 11 after an 18-day popular uprising which shook the Middle East. But there have been protests and political pressure for Shafiq to step down.
One Shafiq aide said appointing Essam Sharaf prime minister was timed to defuse calls for another mass rally by protesters on Friday after a first modest reshuffle by Shafiq failed to mollify protesters who want a clean break with the Mubarak era.
"This is a shocking and premature resignation. There have been pressures from the streets that he quit," one of Shafiq's aides told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
"There was fear of Friday's protests and how big they may be. He actually wanted to leave before this week as well and does not want to agitate the people," the aide said.
Even since Mubarak's overthrow, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have turned out in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities to celebrate his downfall and to send a message to the military that the people will not be ignored.
Shafiq, an air force commander, has been tipped by one military source as a potential contender for the presidency in a forthcoming election. This would ensure the armed forces would have one of their own members in Egypt's top post.
BREAK WITH MUBARAK
Some analysts had suggested Shafiq would resign well before a presidential election, expected in the second half of the year as part of reforms promised by the military, to provide a suitable gap for him to prepare for his bid for the presidency.
But one of Shafiq's aides dismissed such an idea after Thursday's resignation, saying he did not expect him to stand.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces decided to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and appointed Essam Sharaf to form the new government," the army said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other political groupings had also been calling for Shafiq and his government, where the key defense, justice, foreign and interior ministers were all appointed during the Mubarak era, to step aside.
They had demanded a new line of technocrats as ministers after 30 years of Mubarak's rule. The cabinet will act as an interim government while Egypt holds a referendum on constitutional amendments in March, a parliamentary vote in June and a presidential election about six weeks after that.
Sharaf served as transport minister from 2004-06, then returned to academia to teach as a professor at Cairo University. He received a doctorate from America's Purdue University in 1984.
(Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Millership; Editing by Jon Hemming)