Egypt's prime minister and entire cabinet resigned yesterday as President Hosni Mubarak laun-ched an expected major reshuffle of his government, state television reported.

State-run TV broke into its regular programming to report that Mubarak named Ahmed Nazif, the 52-year-old former state minister for communications and information, to replace Egypt's new prime minister of the past four years, Atef Obeid.

The resignations of Obeid and 32 ministers were announced after an emergency cabinet meeting late yesterday and marks the first cabinet reshuffle since July 2002.

The cabinet's resignation, which has been expected for some time, comes amid growing calls for Mubarak to undertake major reforms of the Arab country's political, economic and social landscape.

A defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mubarak is expected to replace most of his longtime cabinet ministers and closest aides with new faces.

Speculation of a change of Egypt's old guard was fuelled when Mubarak earlier this month removed one of his closest aides, Information Minister Safwat El Sherif, from a post he held for 22 years.

The official said that Mubarak has given his new prime minister, whose task is to run Egypt's day-to-day activities, 24 hours to form a new cabinet.

Abdel Halem Qandel, a prominent opposition figure and editor of Egypt's pan-Arabist Al Araby newspaper, criticised Mub-arak's choice of prime minister and described the changes as "cosmetic"

"Mubarak replaced an ageing prime minister with a young face and that is the only change that took place," Qandel said. "Isn't Mubarak himself an ageing president and should be replaced by a new face?"

"In the former cabinet, Ahmed Nazif used to function as a communications minister on the margins for four years. He lacks any real political power or weight. Making him prime minister is not strange as long as Mubarak wants to remain the only decision maker. "The real prime minister is Mubarak himself."

Mubarak has been president since the 1981 assassination of predecessor President Anwar Sadat and has no chosen successor. His length of time in office and recent health concerns, marked by an operation this month to repair a slipped disc in Germany, have fuelled calls for the 76-year-old president to appoint a successor.

Many believe that Mubarak, whose current five-year term ends in October 2005, is grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him, but both have repeatedly denied this.

Gamal Mubarak, 40, heads the ruling National Democratic Party's policy-making committee and has taken on increased public exposure in Egypt.

While attention has been focused on Gamal, the military could be waiting in the wings.

The profile of Omar Suleiman, the influential head of the country's intelligence services and an army general, has risen dramatically in recent years after he started dealing with sensitive foreign policy issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and relations with the United States and Iraq.