Cairo — It was not exactly a warm welcome: As Egypt’s new cabinet started its first day on the job, thousands of people were protesting outside, angry about a body that has already been met with criticism or tepid praise by everyone from ultraconservative salafis to liberal revolutionaries.
The new ministers are perhaps the most technocratic bunch since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago.
Respected economists have been installed in key positions, raising hopes that the new cabinet will move to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, created a new ministry of transitional justice, a small step towards probing the rampant human rights abuses which have occurred since the revolution.
What they lack, though, is universal political backing. None of the newly-appointed ministers hail from Egypt’s major Islamist movements. Deposed president Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood did not receive any portfolios, and senior members of the group have rejected any involvement. The salafi Nour party, Egypt’s second-largest bloc, also did not accept any of the positions it was offered.
Several jobs were filled by holdovers from the previous cabinet, which was widely criticised for failing to fix everything from street violence to power outages. Other ministers have ties to the Mubarak regime, most notably foreign minister Nabil Fahmy, who served as the longtime Egyptian ambassador to the United States.
So the clock is already ticking: The new cabinet takes office amid very high expectations, held together by the awkward alliance of politicians and generals who overthrew Morsi.
"This cocktail of ministers cannot work together effectively,” said Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for Nour. “I hope for them to succeed because I want Egypt to be stabilised, but from a managerial point of view I doubt they will.”
Technocrats and holdovers
Beblawi himself has been praised as a technocrat, and some of his ministers also bring lengthy professional experience to the job. The finance minister, Ahmed Galal, is a well-known economist who criticised Morsi for doing little to resolve the structural problems in Egypt’s economy. Ashraf El-Araby, the planning minister, and Hisham Zaazou, the tourism minister, have won praise from across the political spectrum.
|Thousands of Morsi's supporters staged a protest against the new cabinet this week [Reuters]
Morsi's last minister of investment was a Brotherhood cadre with a professional background in marketing mobile phones. His replacement, Osama Saleh, is an economist who once headed Egypt’s investment authority.
Critics say the new cabinet still under-represents women, but it is undeniably more diverse than the ones that preceded it. “This is the first time we have three Copts in the cabinet in the history of Egypt,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the founder of the Social Democratic Party, whose leadership have been tapped for the premiership and have been key in authoring this transitional period. “And we have [three] women in the cabinet. SCAF only had one, Mubarak only ever had two.”
Other appointments have drawn less praise, however. Electricity minister Ahmed Imam was first appointed by Morsi and will keep his job in the new cabinet, even though the country has been paralysed for months by worsening blackouts. (His solutions included urging Egyptians to turn down their air conditioners.)
More egregious, though less surprising, was the decision to keep interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in his post. Since Ibrahim took office last year, the police have almost disappeared from the streets, leading to a sharp rise in violent crime; meanwhile, rights groups say that police torture and other abuses remain rampant.
But the police openly sided with the coup that toppled Morsi, and the new government is eager to maintain the support of the security forces. “It’s dubious and unsatisfying, but I understand the political motivations,” said Bassem Sabry, a commentator and analyst here.
So there was little criticism of Ibrahim’s reappointment from Egypt’s political factions. Bakkar refused to comment, while Aboul Ghar defended Ibrahim’s record since Morsi’s ouster. “The interior minister was very much disliked during Morsi's rule, but he has done a good job during the last few weeks,” he said.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Ibrahim said that restoring security would be a “top priority” for the new government.
He said little about police reform, though, and it’s unclear how Egypt’s new cabinet will pursue transitional justice without a major shakeup in the security services.
Defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was also sworn in again, just days after 51 people were killed outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo. Human Rights Watch issued a report this week which accused the military of using “unnecessary force” and called for a full investigation. But senior politicians have already admitted that seems unlikely. “We probably won’t get justice,” Aboul Ghar said.
'An internal implosion'
The Nour party temporarily suspended its involvement in negotiations after the massacre, and it has kept itself at a distance from the new cabinet. Bakkar said that Nour was offered four ministerial jobs, as well as a vice premiership, but declined all of them to avoid appearing as if it had benefitted from joining the coalition against Morsi.
Analysts said their motivations might be more pragmatic: to stay out of a cabinet that will struggle to fix Egypt’s myriad problems.
“They affect the cabinet negotiations, but they know it will face challenges that might be beyond the capabilities of anyone,” Sabry said. “And some of their salafi base is supporting Morsi. So joining might be problematic for them, and they might face an internal implosion.”
Bakkar also criticised the cabinet for drawing too heavily from liberal parties. The prime minister and his deputy are both co-founders of the Social Democratic Party, and several other portfolios went to senior members of the Constitution Party and Wafd Party.
Aboul Ghar, however, said it would be difficult to find experienced figures without some party affiliation. “Most of the good technocrats joined the new political parties after the revolution,” he said. “Those who have joined the cabinet have had their party membership suspended.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the cabinet has been criticised by groups like Ahmed Maher’s April 6 movement, which condemned the inclusion of Mubarak-era figures. “How will those ministers achieve the goals of a revolution that was against their regime?” Maher said in a statement released on Wednesday.
'A gun to someone’s head'
Standing on the sidelines, of course, is the Muslim Brotherhood. A spokesman for the interim president, Ahmed el-Moslemany, said that the Brotherhood was offered cabinet positions but declined them.
Top Brotherhood officials have denied this, and Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, called the cabinet illegitimate. “We don’t recognise anyone in it,” he said.
It's like you put a gun to someone's head and asked for reconciliation.
Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood leader and Morsi’s final minister of planning, said the group would not join the government while it is being “pursued.” Morsi remains under house arrest, and senior Brotherhood leaders have been arrested or brought in for questioning.
“We need to see any signs of seriousness,” said Darrag, who was replaced by Araby, the man he replaced just two months ago. “If you want to prove to be serious, then free the president, free the captive people, issue an independent investigation of what happened in front of the Republican Guard… do something to indicate that there is a real willingness.”
With the Brotherhood waiting in the wings and threatening to escalate its protests, the transitional government had to move forward quickly with the appointments. Aboul Ghar admits this affected the selection of ministers, as “there was not enough time to fish for new people for some posts.”
The prime minister also ignored requests to shrink the size of the cabinet, which now contains 34 ministers. Nour and other parties had suggested cutting it in half, and urged Beblawi to merge ministries like electricity and petroleum into a single energy ministry. “There is a lot of overlap between some of the portfolios,” Sabry said.
Last minute decision-making also highlighted the ongoing spats within the uncomfortable coalition that toppled Morsi. The head of Cairo’s opera house, Ines Abdel Daymen, told local channel ONTV that she was on her way to be sworn in when she got the call saying she was out because of criticism from Nour.
Meanwhile the army are orchestrating events and writing the timeline: Despite promises to the contrary, Egypt’s political factions were not consulted over the writing of the constitutional declaration, which laid out a schedule for elections and defined the powers of the government during the transitional period.
With investigations under way into military involvement in last Monday’s massacre and the police back to tear-gassing protesters on Cairo’s streets, there are few guarantees transitional justice will be served and change realised. “It's like you put a gun to someone's head and asked for reconciliation,” Darrag said.
After two-and-a-half years and several disastrous transitional periods, much is resting on this new government. Several cabinet ministers declined interview requests, saying it was too early to comment on their work. The cabinet’s backers, for their part, have promised everything from economic growth to a more transparent and inclusive political process, setting high expectations for the next six months.
“I think the situation will be better,” said Aboul Ghar. “This cabinet will do in a very short time things that all cabinets since Mubarak’s time failed to do.”