x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Morsi's cabinet moves deepen Egypt's divisions

By shunning the calls of the opposition, President Morsi has shown that he is willing to divide Egyptian politics without ruling it.

Those in Egypt who wondered whether President Mohammed Morsi would include the National Salvation Front in his latest cabinet reshuffle have been given their answer. It is not a positive one, for them or for Egypt.

The NSF has been arguing for months that Mr Morsi must change the composition of his cabinet, making it less Islamist and more inclusive of other political thinking within the country. A "unity government" is what the NSF proposed. Mr Morsi's response, announced Tuesday, appears to be an unequivocal "no".

Instead of attempting to show some flexibility and co-opt the opposition, thereby paving the way forward towards future compromises, Mr Morsi has chosen confrontation. The opposition will now be more forceful in its demands for the Islamists to cede power. He has also bolstered the position of the opposition in front of the Egyptian public.

Rather than put forth moderate or compromise candidates, Mr Morsi has only moved to cement the Muslim Brotherhood's power. Indeed, what this cabinet looks most like is an election cabinet, preparation by the Muslim Brotherhood for the coming parliamentary election in October.

It is in that context that the decision to remove the planning minister Ashraf Al Arabi should be read. Mr Al Arabi was central to the continuing talks with the IMF over a $4.8 billion (Dh17.6 billion) loan for the cash-strapped country. The Brotherhood appears to have calculated that the changes required by the IMF - like the removal of subsidies - would hurt its base of supporters disproportionately.

At the same time, by moving Islamist politicians into more senior roles - in planning, investment and agriculture - the Brotherhood is entrenching its power across the cabinet. Two of the members sworn in on Tuesday belong to the Brotherhood's political party, and nearly a third of the 36-member Cabinet is now affiliated with the Islamist movement.

In truth, none of this helps Egypt much. The IMF loan is not essential - Egypt still has friends in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya who are loath to see the Arab world's largest state collapse. But the loan would send a signal that the Brotherhood is willing to do what is required for the longer-term financial stability of the country.

Mr Morsi's reshuffle is both nakedly partisan and tone-deaf to the cries of reform from political parties and ordinary people. By shunning the calls of the opposition, Mr Morsi has shown that he is willing to divide Egypt without ruling it. For him and the Muslim Brotherhood, that is clearly enough. But it is not enough for Egypt.