x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Egypt's military rulers invite political opposition into cabinet

British prime minister makes surprise visit, urges Egyptian government to follow through on promise of democratic reforms, while activists demand Shafiq's departure

Ahmed Shafiq, Egypt's prime minister, welcomes David Cameron to Cairo yesterday.
Ahmed Shafiq, Egypt's prime minister, welcomes David Cameron to Cairo yesterday.

CAIRO // Egypt's military rulers have decided to invite the country's political opposition into the cabinet for the first time in decades, the official state news agency reported yesterday as the new government played host to an impromptu visit by the British prime minister.

David Cameron flew in for a surprise visit, becoming the first head of state to meet Egypt's new rulers.

Mr Cameron came to shore up commercial ties with Egypt and urge the the military council to stick to its promised democratic reforms, his office said in a statement.

But the move to invite opposition leaders into the military-led transition will not placate protesters who are demanding that it fully dismantle the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, a protest leader said.

The partial cabinet reshuffle, expected to be confirmed by official announcement today, illustrates the tightrope act the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces faces as it tries to maintain the stability and the continuity of Egypt's governmental bureaucracy while mollifying youth protesters and labour activists who have pressed their demands with disruptive street rallies.

Protesters filled Cairo's Tahrir square on Friday to celebrate the ouster of Mr Mubarak and demand the immediate dismissal of his cabinet appointees who remain in office. They said they will return each Friday for huge rallies until their demands are met.

Military leaders appeared to heed their calls in part yesterday, saying they would name Yehya al Gamal, a prominent legal expert and critic of Mr Mubarak, to the vacant post of deputy prime minister, and Mounir Abdel Nour, the secretary general of the liberal Wafd party, to the post of minister of tourism, MENA news reported.

Mr al Gamal, the former head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, has served as a leader in the National Association for Change, the reform group championed by Mohammed el Baradei, the pro-democracy activist.

Mr al Gamal could not be reached for comment yesterday, but said in an interview last week that he supported an overtly secular government for Egypt and backed the military's decision to move gradually on constitutional reform during the next six months.

The military also scrapped the post of information minister and named opposition figures to head the ministries of education, culture, immigration and scientific research.

It stopped short, however, of replacing the ministers of interior, justice and foreign affairs, and the prime minister himself, which prompted immediate criticism from protest leaders.

Youth protesters would return to Tahrir Friday to voice their displeasure, said Yasser el Hawary, a spokesman for the Youth for Justice and Freedom, a major protest group.

"It's good, but not good enough," he said. "We will not be happy if anyone from the ruling National Democratic Party is still in the government, and we would like to remove [prime minister] Ahmed Shafiq."

Protesters were willing to wait six months for reforms to the constitution and free elections, which they knew would take time, he said. But they were not willing to wait for the dismissal of Mr Mubarak's cabinet appointees and the release of demonstrators arrested since protests began on January 25, Mr Hawary said.

Protesters have also pushed for legal investigations into alleged cases of corruption during Mr Mubarak's regime.

Egypt's prosecutor general, Abdel Magid Mahmud, yesterday formally requested, through the ministry of foreign affairs, that foreign governments freeze Mr Mubarak's assets, MENA reported. The prosecutor had received reports alleging Mr Mubarak maintained a fortune outside of the country, "which necessitates an investigation", according to a judicial source quoted by the news agency.

The Egyptian press has been full of reports alleging a massive overseas fortune controlled by Mr Mubarak and his family worth tens of billions of dollars.

An unnamed legal adviser to Mr Mubarak dismissed the reports yesterday, calling them "a groundless rumour" in remarks published by MENA.

Egypt's new government also yesterday hosted its first visits by foreign leaders since Mr Mubarak's ouster on February 11.

Mr Cameron's visit was described as "something of a gamble" by a senior diplomat in London yesterday.

"It has been less than two weeks since Mubarak went and the military council took over, and it still remains to be seen if they make good on their promise on free elections and a rapid transition to democratic rule," he said.

"The UK government sees this as an opportunity to encourage the military council towards that speedy, democratic solution. But it is something of a gamble because the visit might be seen as legitimising the current regime."

William Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, also arrived yesterday for talks with Egyptian military officials.


* Additional reporting by David Sapsted in London