Commentary

Is New Egypt Cabinet More of the Same?

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Ibrahim Mehleb, a former member of deposed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s party, has been nominated as the country’s next prime minister following the surprise resignation of the previous government. Mr. Mehleb, who served as the housing minister in the outgoing government, will now be tasked with steadying the economy, calming widespread discontent in various parts of the country, and pushing back against an increase in militant attacks in the Sinai. But for most observers, the real task for Mr. Mehleb will be to provide some continuity and stability until Abdel Fattah al-Sisi makes his bid to become the country’s next president.

Considering the overlap in personnel between the outgoing and incoming governments, some are wondering whether this twist in Egyptian politics will be more of the same.  Initial reports by Al Masry Al Youm indicate that there will be a great level of continuity, but “As for … Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, [Ibrahim] Mehleb ensured that the president would decide [if Sisi stays on as defense minister,] as sovereign ministers are selected by the president. ‘I and members of the new cabinet will exert the maximum effort to meet the needs of our citizens and serve the people and achieve their aspirations,’ he said....The new cabinet is expected [to] include 33 ministers, including 16 ministers from Hazem al-Beblawy's. The portfolios that have not been decided yet include the environment, transport, industry, justice and health. Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Muttalib will reportedly keep his post in the new cabinet.”

But other reports indicate that a decision with regards to Mr. Sisi has already been made. Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Sara Barqawi confirms that Field Marshall Sisi will continue in his post as a defense minister: “The speculation surrounding Egyptian army chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his widely anticipated bid for the presidency has momentarily quelled with the announcement on Wednesday that he will keep his post as defense minister..... Sisi is considered a favorite to win the forthcoming presidential election, but has not yet formally announced his candidacy. In order to run for presidency, he must vacate both his government and army posts....But not all are seeing the Cabinet’s resignation as a sign of solidarity with Sisi. Journalist Yasser Afifi said: ‘There is no relation between the resignation of the government and the presidential elections in general. We want a government that can face crises and provide security; the government has failed in all these files, therefore it resigned. That’s it.’”

There are still questions, however, about the real reasons that caused the dissolution of the government, with some suggesting that Egypt needed a new government to face the country’s challenges, even though it is clear that those problems did not originate with the outgoing government: “With protests and labor strikes spreading across Egypt in recent weeks, former government ministers speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat have placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the last two governments....Rising unemployment, a widening budget deficit and plummeting foreign reserves are just some of the myriad problems facing Egypt’s economy....Former Minister of Finance Samir Radwan said the strikes were ‘caused by the failure of institutions to manage the conflict and provide the space for consultation and cooperation between opposing sectors of society who play an important role in transitional periods.’... Yousef Al-Qaryouti, regional manager of World Labor Organization (WLO), said…the labor protests in the streets were a result of the irregular practices in the labor market in the last four decades, which in turn have created a tense relationship between the main players in the labor system: the government, the workers and employers.”

Others are convinced the reshuffling of the government had more to do with Mr. Sisi’s presidential ambitions than economic conditions. In a recent editorial, the Khaleej Times suggests that the country’s outgoing Prime Minsiter “Beblawi, the soft-spoken politician who managed the day-to-day affairs of the government, believes that his cabinet had shouldered a very difficult task, and in most cases its performance was good. His exit at a time when the North African Arab country is gripped by chaos and uncertainty is unexplainable. The rise in militancy in Sinai desert is a crucial factor that will come to test the resilience of the nation in the days to come....The fact that his resignation came minutes after a meeting between the powerful troika comprising him, the field marshal and interim President Adly Mansour indicates that a formal roadmap is at hand to steer the country out of ad hoc governance. In the next few days, General Sisi is also likely to take off his uniform and run for presidency.”

Regardless of the reasons behind the move, there does seem to be some lingering unhappiness about the non-transparent and unexpected nature of the decision. Al Ahram’s Gamal Essam El-Din expresses in particular concern about the appointment of a former Mubarak holdover: “A government of technocrats is expected to be in place next week. Outgoing housing minister Ibrahim Mehleb, onetime member of president Hosni Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party, was asked on Tuesday by interim President Adli Mansour to form a new government. Monday’s resignation by prime minister Hazem Al-Beblawi and his entire cabinet took analysts by surprise despite the recent flurry of stories promoting Mehleb as a possible replacement for Al-Beblawi....It is far more likely, says Al-Sinnawi, that the government was forced to resign. He points out that ‘Al-Beblawi has been noticeably opaque about the reasons behind his decision.’ Al-Sinnawi does not rule out the possibility that the military, led by Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, orchestrated the cabinet’s removal.”

Similarly, The National’s H A Hellyer believes that by keeping the Egyptians “in the dark on their political affairs,” Egypt’s rulers have demonstrated the need for deep structural reforms: “The appointment of this minister is problematic: he was not only a member of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, but a member of the Policy Committee headed by Gamal Mubarak....This latest political development in Egypt shows that the Egyptian state has many challenges ahead, including on a structural level. Whatever the reasons for this mass resignation, it was certainly not smooth, nor transparent. The public deserves to know why such a dramatic move was made without any real details indicating why it took place. Instead, the public is likely to wait for a long time before they are told, if ever. In the meantime, Egyptians continue to wait to see whether or not this next government produces any solutions to the problems that they face.”

Finally, Farid Zahran, writing for the Daily News of Egypt wonders whether the resignation of the cabinet is a step in the right direction at all, going on to suggest that it represents a final stage in the post-June 2013 transitional period: “It is believed that the cabinet’s resignation and the rumoured assignment of leadership of the new government to Minister of Housing Ibrahim Mahlab is the third and last stage of the transitional period which is supposed to have started on 30 June after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from the political scene. The transitional period is supposed to end with the election of the parliament in the summer or early autumn of 2014. Currently, people are fed up with the lack of security and stability, so they are starting to long for anyone who can bring back security, even if that means the return of dictatorship. So, let us ask: What is the excuse that the supporters of the old state will use when they almost certainly fail to bring back security? And who will be blamed by the people during the coming few weeks for such failure?”


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