x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Morsi's cabinet strikes a dull thud

Egpyt's new president plays safe with a host of relative unknowns.

Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil has unveiled a new cabinet that retains military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as defence minister while giving the ruling Islamists and their allies several portfolios.
Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil has unveiled a new cabinet that retains military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi as defence minister while giving the ruling Islamists and their allies several portfolios.

CAIRO // President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt struck an unambitious tone yesterday with the announcement of a new cabinet that includes a host of technocrats and only a few Islamists.

And, according to analysts, the swearing-in ceremony was more important for what did not happen.

The cabinet chosen by Mr Morsi's prime minister, Hesham Kandil, retained several ministers from the previous government who had been appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf). They included Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, but there were fewer Islamists than expected.

Observers and members of new political parties in Egypt had higher hopes for the cabinet. But Mr Morsi, facing his own power struggles with the military, chose a more staid path by appointing relative unknowns from within the ranks of government.

"There will be no warm reception for this government because most of them are completely unknown, but it will not be received negatively either," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

"Morsi has chosen at this moment to create a non-political government, which is a positive thing in our environment right now. There is no hegemony of the Muslim Brothers and the presence of Salafists is almost none."

The cabinet reflects Mr Morsi's background and character. An electrical engineer and long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he entered the presidential race as a relative unknown with little charisma but narrowly won with the backing of the Brotherhood's extensive network.

The new cabinet is led by Hesham Kandil, a former water and irrigation minister who Mr Morsi appointed last week as his prime minister.

Several key ministers will stay on, including Momtaz Al Saeed as minister of finance, Mohamed Kamel Amr as foreign minister, and Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the Scaf, as secretary of defence.

The re-appointment of Field Marshal Tantawi was viewed as a sign that Mr Morsi was still under intense pressure from the military and was choosing his fights carefully, rather than walking into a direct confrontation.

During a press conference yesterday, Mr Kandil defended the cabinet.

"The main principle, the main criterion, was competence," he said. "We should stop using such terms as them and us, and that this is a Christian, or a Copt, or a Muslim. All I see is Egyptians and citizens. We are the people's government; we do not represent any trend."

Several of the faces in the cabinet are not so new. Maj Gen Ahmed Gamaleddin, formerly of the Public Security Authority, was made minister of interior. Osama Kamel, the new minister of petroleum, was previously the head Egyptian Petrochemical Holding Company.

At least four ministers came from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party: Mostafa Mosaad, minister of education; Tarek Wafiq, minister of housing; Salah Abdel Maqsood, minister of information, and Osama Yassin, minister of youth.

Part of the reticence of the president to form a more overtly political cabinet comes from the fact that Mr Morsi is facing his own power struggle as Egypt's first, freely elected president. The parliament, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Al Nour Party, was dissolved after a decision from the country's supreme court in June by the Scaf.

The Scaf then issued an 11th hour constitutional addendum, giving itself legislative powers and stripping the presidency of some of its roles.

Mr Morsi made a half-hearted attempt to counter the move with a decree reconvening the dissolved parliament until new elections are held, but the Supreme Constitutional Court froze the decree. Several lawsuits regarding the committee rewriting the constitution and parliament are continuing, but it appears that Scaf's changes are likely to stick.

That has left Mr Morsi as arguably Egypt's least powerful president in history - with the exception of the placeholders who took over for short periods between the totalitarian regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak.

His greatest challenge is to make a positive impact on the lives of daily Egyptians. The task was made no easier by the outgoing, Scaf-appointed government, which made little headway in shoring up the crumbling economy.

Mr Morsi's cabinet appointments avoided controversy, but the question remains whether they are able to implement the Muslim Brotherhood's "renaissance" project for Egypt.

So far, the president has had a slow start. Aside from several high-profile foreign trips to Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, his main achievement has been a public advocacy plan to clean the streets of Egypt - a worthy challenge, but a far cry from dealing with an unemployment rate above 12 per cent and some 40 per cent of the population living on less than US$2 (Dh7.3) a day.

The economic plan of the Freedom and Justice Party, which Mr Morsi chaired before stepping down to accept the presidency, is largely in favour of free-market policies, with an increased reliance on Islamic financial instruments.

Its core belief is that the economy needs to be reformed, not revolutionised: that stopping corruption and widening opportunities to private businesses will yield the growth the country needs.

Mr Kandil will hold a meeting with members of his government tomorrow to discuss the next steps on seeking an International Monetary Fund loan.

An IMF deal would help Egypt stave off a budget and balance of payments crisis and add credibility to economic reforms needed to restore the confidence of investors who fled the country after a popular uprising last year.

"We will have a meeting on Saturday headed by me to look into our next steps," Kandil said.

However, Egyptian history shows that this philosophy has not always been successful. In fact, the only ministers that made a difference to the economy were also part of the problem that led Mubarak's regime to collapse last year.

Mubarak's cabinets over his first 23 years struck a similar tone to Mr Morsi's new appointees. He brought aboard experts, engineers and professors who were adept at their chosen skill set and anything but visionary.

It was only in 2004, after the president gave his son Gamal more influence over the country's economic reforms, that a new group of controversial, businessmen ministers were appointed.

Their policies led to economic growth, but also a feeling that wealth was being distributed only among the country's elite while unemployment and poverty were growing.

That imbalanced environment created a charged backdrop in Egypt that helped spur hundreds of thousands of people to take to the streets over 18 days last year to protest against the regime.

Several of those ministers, including Yousef Boutros Ghali, the former finance minister, and Rachid Mohammed Rachid, the former minister of trade, are fugitives from Egyptian courts.

They have been sentenced in absentia for corruption crimes, but remain abroad and have claimed their innocence.

bhope@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Bradley Hope on @bradleyhope