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Cairo's new Cabinet proves how little has really changed

Compromises have been made in choosing Egypt's new leaders, who probably won't be there for the long term.

It is not clear exactly when Egypt's revolution first wandered into a swamp, but there is no question that it is now there, with no clear way out. Last week's appointments made by incoming prime minister, Hisham Qandil, to the first non-caretaker government since the January 2011 uprising, are a political confirmation of this.

The violence that is manifesting itself in clashes between slum dwellers and the luxury compounds that neighbour them, or the increased sectarian tensions seen in cities and villages, are its social manifestation.

It may be tempting to blame President Mohammed Morsi, who took a month to get the new government going, for getting bogged down. And he must share in the blame. But Mr Morsi is hardly alone in bearing responsibility for a loss of momentum - indeed, a loss of any discernible direction - that has been visible for months.

Rather, blame falls first and foremost to the military's handling of the post-Mubarak period, the greed and other failings of his Muslim Brothers and other political parties, and the inability of revolutionaries to turn their symbolic capital into a political vision. The present situation is also a reminder of how "sticky" bad old habits of governance in Egypt are, and the extent to which the question of why the country was so badly run for so many years extended far beyond the dull rule of Hosni Mubarak.

The new government of Mr Qandil has been described as the uninspiring result of a compromise between the military and the president (and behind him the Muslim Brotherhood). And yet, this is not the whole picture: the Brotherhood and the generals do have some power, but far more significant is their lack of power and legitimacy in imposing themselves against each another, and upon society.

What is happening in Egypt is not the triumph of Islamists or the military, or even an alliance of both, but the beginning of a shake-up of the manner in which politics have been codified for the past 60 years, with myriad actors trying to adapt to this change - and salvage what they can from the old power structure at the same time.

The composition of the new government is telling in this. Some ministries (foreign affairs, defence, military production) have been declared "sovereign", that is, the exclusive province of the "deep state" composed of the military and the intelligence services.

Meanwhile, the ministry of interior - the institution that dominated Egyptian life for the last 15 years and whose prestige (and ability to inculcate fear) was damaged by the 2011 uprising - has remained in the hands of one of its own: a former police general. Police unions, and the senior ranks of the ministry, have made it clear that they do not want outsiders to interfere in the way the ministry is run, and would rather it did its own housecleaning.

Finally, senior civil servants appear to have remained in positions to run the economic portfolios and much of the essential state bureaucracy.

There is an argument that, with the economy being the most urgent issue facing the country, change is not what is needed there. But one must wonder whether this betrays a lack of new economic ideas, particularly when Egypt's relatively peripheral role in the global economy leaves it very little room for manoeuvre. These technocrats and mandarins could eventually be overruled by the politicians, but for now, as Egypt awaits help from international financial institutions, they remain guardians of the state temple.

The Muslim Brotherhood has made inroads into some ministries (not for the first time: in the 1960s, some members had been allowed, as individuals, ministerial positions). It should be of little surprise that these include the ministries of housing and education - institutions whose role is to provide services, something in which the Brotherhood has some experience.

More intriguing is that a Brother now heads the information ministry, a costly behemoth whose reform is one of the biggest headaches of post-Mubarak Egypt. That the media is on a warpath against the Brotherhood has been a refrain of its members; perhaps they hope to better control it. But the loyalties of Egypt's state media are divided; its multiple organs now have different masters. And, for the printed press in particular, the new minister will have to face the politically influential Journalists' Syndicate. Here corporatism could prevail, as in many other cases.

The justice ministry shows perhaps the most interesting example of how the Brotherhood is tackling the strong corporatist identity of senior judges, who have for the past month thrown stick after stick in the wheels of the new president's administration, effectively siding with the generals in interpreting what power the president has.

At the ministry of religious endowments, a last-minute appointment ditched a Salafi candidate decried by many for being a figure from Al Azhar, the traditional seat of the Egyptian ulema. As much relief as this may bring, it is also a triumph for the status-quo. There will not be a political Islamist in control of either endowments or state mosques. The Coptic Orthodox Church, another institution that seeks to speak in the name of a large segment of society, is unhappy with the new government, but it too is locked in the corporatist game: the question that appears dearest to its heart is maintaining the few privileges it had under the old system.

This new government may not last. New parliamentary elections are expected within weeks, and an unstable political and constitutional backdrop suggest this cabinet is merely a stopgap measure. The appointments buy time for the various actors, big and small, to put their own houses in order and maximise their influence.

In a sense we've now seen a return of real politics, unmediated by the micromanagement of security officials. Unfortunately, Egypt can ill afford to wallow in a swamp - or risk wading into quicksand.

 

Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist who blogs at www.arabist.net

On Twitter: @arabist

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