No sooner had speculation ended over the identity of Egypt's new prime minister than questions emerged over the surprise appointment of Hisham Kandil to the top position on Tuesday, given lingering uncertainties about his political past, views and affiliations.
Prominent public figures – including reform activist Mohamed ElBaradei, veteran central banker Farouq El-Oqda and Deputy PM Hazem El-Beblawi – had been initially tipped to take on the job shortly after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt's first freely-elected president late last month.
The presidential office, however, continued to deny that it had settled on any of the names initially touted by the media. It was later reported that Morsi had asked the interim government – led by interim prime minister Kamal El-Ganzouri – to stay put, suggesting a further delay to the formation of the new cabinet the appointment of which had originally been expected only one week after Morsi assumed office.
After weeks of uncertainty over Egypt's new government, with no official nominees or timeframes announced, Kandil was abruptly unveiled on Tuesday as Egypt's new premier.
The appointment, which has received mixed reactions from Egypt's political forces, appears to mark the beginning of a new chapter in the ongoing saga over Egypt's incoming government.
Fear of Islamists
A jovial, bearded man who served as irrigation minister in the post-revolution governments of Essam Sharaf and El-Ganzouri, Kandil has heretofore seldom been in the public eye.
The presidential office has played down Kandil's Islamist look, typified by his beard, stressing that he was never part of any political group or party, nor was he committed to a particular ideology. Several critics, however, have linked him to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Hussein Abdel-Razek, a leading member of the leftist Tagammu Party, claimed that Kandil "was, in fact, a Brotherhood member before quitting the Islamist group to travel to the US."
Abdel-Razek also stressed that Morsi, who himself hails from the Brotherhood's ranks, "did not keep his promise to appoint a premier who is completely independent and who doesn't proclaim allegiance to any political or social factions."
Secularists have voiced concerns that the Brotherhood would seek to dominate Egypt's post-Mubarak political landscape, since the group's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), captured nearly half the seats in the People's Assembly (the lower house of Egypt's parliament). The assembly was dissolved in June on orders of the military after the High Constitutional Court ruled it unconstitutional.
Fears of theocratic rule in Egypt were aggravated after the Brotherhood's Morsi was elected president last month. Now, Kandil is seen by the same doubters as another figure who could potentially enable the Islamist group to rule the country unopposed.
Ahmed Taha, a spokesman for the National Front for Change, alleged that pro-Brotherhood cleric Safwat Hegazi had recommended Kandil for the irrigation ministry under ex-premier Sharaf, before taking up the post of prime minister once a Brotherhood president had assumed power.
"Where is the 'independent patriotic figure' that Morsi promised to appoint as premier?" Taha asked. "I'm afraid Morsi is still acting as the FJP president; he must prove he's a president for all Egyptians."
While others echo similar sentiments, Kandil describes himself as "a religious man" who has never belonged to an Islamist political group.
While bemoaning Kandil's appointment as new PM, Taha touched upon the second point of controversy: Kandil's relative lack of political experience.
A water and irrigation engineer with a PhD from the University of North Carolina, Kandil, born in 1962, has never been involved in Egyptian domestic affairs – either before or after last year's Tahrir Square uprising.
"He lacks a political history, experience or knowledge," said Taha.
While lacking political experience, Kandil is relatively young compared to his predecessors – and this, say supporters, should be considered one of his advantages.
Salafist Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakar said on his Facebook page that "Morsi's decision [to appoint Kandil] was good for more than one reason, including his age."
Kandil received a BA in Engineering from Cairo University in 1984, going on to earn a Master's Degree in 1988 from Utah State University and a Doctorate in irrigation in 1993 from North Carolina State University.
He served as office director for then-irrigation minister Mahmoud Abou Zeid from 1999 to 2005. He was also part of the Nile Basin Initiative, launched in 1999 with the aim of bolstering cooperation between the states of the Nile Basin.
He later worked as chief water resource engineer at the Tunisia-based African Development Bank.
On 15 July, Kandil travelled with President Morsi to the African Union summit in Ethiopia. The trip sought to rekindle Cairo's relationship with its African neighbours following decades of Mubarak-era neglect.
Improving Egypt's relationship with Nile Basin countries is one of Morsi's stated priorities, according to his electoral programme.
Kandil was appointed minister of irrigation and water resources by then-PM Sharaf in July of last year. He was subsequently asked to remain in the post by El-Ganzouri last November.
Abdel-Ghaffar Shokr, a founding member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, told Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website on Tuesday: "We're facing a big question mark that will remain until the government is formed ... it's too early to make any judgments."