CAIRO, Egypt (AP) – President Hosni Mubarak’s cabinet resigned Friday and the longtime leader appointed a relative outsider as prime minister, further consolidating his power at a time of growing calls for political, social and economic change.

State-run television interrupted its programming to report that Mubarak named Ahmed Nazief, a 52-year-old former state minister for communications and information, to replace the prime minister of the past four years, Atef Obeid, 72.

Mubarak’s choice follows a pattern of appointing technocrats – rather than more politically inclined lawmakers – to the post, a situation critics say is designed to ensure political power is not placed into the hands of a potential challenger to his presidency.

The 76-year-old Mubarak, a close U.S. ally and president since 1981, has no chosen successor. His length of time in office and concerns about his health – he recently had surgery to repair a slipped disc – have fueled calls for him to designate a replacement. Many believe he is grooming his son, Gamal, to take over, though both deny this.

The resignations of Obeid and 32 ministers were announced after an emergency cabinet meeting late Friday. It was the first cabinet reshuffle since July 2002, but had been expected for some time.

Obeid’s ministers had been blamed for failing to address the needs of this Arab country’s beleaguered economy, which during the past four years has suffered from its floating of the Egyptian pound, a shortage of foreign currency and a drastic lack of exports against rising imports.

Also, despite much publicized attempts to stamp out Egypt’s culture of graft, the government has been unable to fully rid its bureaucracy of corruption.

Mubarak is expected to replace most of his longtime ministers and closest aides with new faces, said a defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official said Mubarak gave his new prime minister 24 hours to form a cabinet.

As prime minister, the Cairo-born Nazief will run Egypt’s day-to-day activities. Fluent in English and French, he graduated from Cairo University’s engineering faculty in 1973 and has a doctorate in computer science from a Canadian university. He was a professor at Cairo University before becoming executive manager of the information center within Egypt’s Council of Ministers.

First appointed to the cabinet in 1999, Nazief is credited with making major advances in developing Egypt’s fledgling information technology sector.

Yet political commentators and activists – many of them urging Mubarak to make sweeping changes to Egypt’s ailing economy and suffocating human rights climate – expressed disappointment with the appointment of yet another technocrat.

Abdel Halem Qandel, a prominent opposition figure and editor of Egypt’s pan-Arabist al-Araby newspaper, criticized Mubarak’s choice of Nazief and described the changes as “cosmetic.”

“Mubarak replaced an aging prime minister with a young face, and that is the only change that took place,” Qandel told The Associated Press. “Isn’t Mubarak himself an aging president and should be replaced by a new face?”

Abuleila Madi, a leading moderate Islamist, said the government’s policies – and not necessarily the ministers implementing them – were to blame for Egypt’s stagnation, which has been marked by a crippling liquidity crunch and a lurching economic reform program.

“For 50 years now there has been no political mobility,” Madi told AP. “We have no political elite from which we can choose figures who enjoy the skills and experiences that would enable them to hold political posts such as the prime minister.”

Nabil Abdel Fatah, political analyst at the government-funded Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Mubarak needed to make “drastic change … in his eternal policy of appointing technocrats while avoiding politicians.”

“Even if the most intelligent computer science expert was chosen to be prime minister, such a decision marks a very poor choice for such a sensitive post which needs political skills more than technical ones,” he added.

One positive point he noted, however, was the resignation of Egypt’s old guard and the possible replacement by “a new generation who was never given space before.”

Mubarak has ruled since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. His current six-year term ends in October 2005. His 41-year-old son and believed successor heads the ruling National Democratic Party’s policy-making committee and has taken on increased public exposure in Egypt.

But while attention focuses on Gamal Mubarak, the powerful military could be waiting in the wings.

Omar Suleiman, a general and head of Egypt’s intelligence services, has risen in influence in recent years since he started dealing with sensitive foreign policy issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and relations with the United States and Iraq.

Mubarak, a former air force commander, transformed Egypt into Washington’s second most important strategic partner in the Middle East after Israel. Any successor is likely to continue that foreign policy.

AP-ES-07-09-04 1927EDT

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