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Morsi's choice of Egypt's PM: Last thing reluctant supporters expected

Some who supported Morsi against Shafiq expected the president to choose a revolution-friendly figure for prime minister, perhaps someone with Charisma, but not Hisham Qandil

Dina Ezzat, Tuesday 7 Aug 2012
Morsi and Qandil
Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, left, meets with new PM, Hesham Kandil, at the Presidential Palace in Cairo. (Photo: AP)
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"He wasn't the [president's] first choice, but the president is confident that his heart is in the right place and that he's committed to hard work," said one advisor to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi regarding the latter's choice of Hisham Qandil as prime minister.

Irrigation minister in the outgoing Kamal El-Ganzouri government, Qandil is not known to be particularly politicised.

"He understands his portfolio well, but that's about it; he really lacks charisma and he wasn't a very strong irrigation minister," said one irrigation ministry official. "He has kept a very low profile."

"Qandil was chosen for several reasons, foremost among which are his Islamist nature and the fact that he is not an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if he was associated with the group during his university years," said one former Brotherhood member. "Qandil also lacks a strong character and that makes him weaker than Morsi himself, who is not really a very charismatic politician."

The same source added: "Morsi would never have selected a strong prime minister, simply because he doesn't want anyone to overshadow him. He is still trying to get past his reputation as the Brotherhood's second-choice presidential candidate."

Morsi, a professor of engineering, who was until recently the head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, was only nominated as a presidential candidate when it became clear to the Muslim Brotherhood that its original nominee, group number-two Khairat El-Shater, would be disqualified from the race due to legal complications. For weeks, Morsi was derided by his detractors as "the spare-tyre candidate."

"Morsi had asked the leader of the Brotherhood to get El-Shater to keep a low profile, and El-Shater has done so," said a member of Morsi's presidential campaign. "It's very important for Morsi to get over his image of a weak president who cannot deliver on his promises. This is understandable."

The choice of Qandil for prime minister might have met the criteria that Morsi was looking for: a candidate of an Islamist affiliation even if not with a direct association to the to the Muslim Brotherhood and of low profile that would not accentuate the unmasked uncharismatic president himself.

This, however, was not what Morsi had promised to national forces who supported him as presidential runner in the face of Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, who was running with a firm support from state bodies, interest groups and a church scared of the Islamist threat.

For the alliance of national forces Morsi had promised a prime minsiter of a national affiliation and of firm expertise.

At the time, a large swathe of Egypt's revolutionary forces – as represented by the so-called 'National Front' – clearly did not see Morsi as a revolutionary figure (despite the prominent role played by the Brotherhood's young cadres in protecting anti-regime protesters throughout the course of last year's 18-day uprising). He was, however, the only choice, since he was running against Shafiq, a holdover from the Mubarak regime.

Their support was conditional, however: Morsi would have to appoint a 'national figure' to the premiership and select a cabinet representative of the diverse political trends that participated in last year's uprising.

Today, those who gave their support to Morsi say the president – who narrowly beat Shafiq in the hotly-contested runoff vote – has failed to live up to his promise.

"When we were thinking of a national figure for prime minister, we were thinking of someone with a political background with the ability to solicit the support of a wide range of political forces," said a leading member of the non-Islamist political movement that threw its weight behind Morsi for president. "And Qandil fails to meet these criteria."

At one point, reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was touted for the post of prime minister. But according to a close associate of ElBaradei, the latter "was never approached for the job."

Another name that had been floated was that of former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, who came in fifth in the first-round presidential poll. Moussa's associates, too, say the Mubarak-era foreign minister was never approached for the position.  

The same goes for former presidential candidate and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

Morsi, informed sources say, failed to explain his choice of Qandil, or his reasons for turning down other nominees proposed by the National Front and other last-minute supporters.

For members of the National Front, Morsi has not only let them down, but is also shrugging them off.

"If he thinks this attitude will make us go away, he's making a big mistake," said one front member. "We intend to keep expressing our views and we will be much more vocal in our criticisms of him."

He added: "Had we been vocal enough in our criticisms of Qandil, we wouldn't have ended up with this good-for-nothing cabinet".

The Morsi-Qandil duo has not only failed to impress Morsi's reluctant supporters, but it has also failed to impress Egypt's hesitant allies, which had promised financial support to help Egypt through its tough post-revolution phase.

"This is a very weak president and very weak prime minister; it's very hard to see Egypt stabilising under these two men," said one Cairo-based European diplomat.

In the reading of several Western diplomats in Cairo, Qandil is an "even weaker" prime minister than his predecessor, El-Ganzouri. They also say that Qandil's ministerial choices are similarly weak, and much less experienced than those who had served in the outgoing government.

"They have no public support," the European diplomat added. "Most people don't even know their names."

For these western diplomats, the choice of Qandil as prime minister – and the composition of his government – sends the message that Egypt is moving from one transitional period into another, and that the recipe for stability remains missing.

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