Egypt cabinet reshuffle hints at 'dissolution of 30 June alliance'

Ayat Al-Tawy, Saturday 1 Mar 2014

Pro-democracy figures express misgivings over the allegedly forced resignation of Egypt's transitional cabinet that had liberals and leftists in the vanguard

New cabinet
This image released by the Egyptian Presidency on Saturday, March 1, 2014, shows interim President Adly Mansour, center, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, fifth right, and new interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, fifth left, with the new cabinet ministers at the presidential palace in Cairo (Photo: AP)

As Egypt continues to grapple with the fallout of three years of political tumult that has seen six cabinets appointed to date, a new caretaker government is now in place to face afresh the daunting task of returning stability and economic confidence.

Formed in the wake of the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the interim government led by liberal economist Hazem El-Beblawi stepped down Monday -- a move analysts view as an attempt to quell growing disillusionment against a backdrop of labour strikes, militant violence and a faltering economy.

The departing cabinet bowed out following months of mounting pressure from what critics say was a relentless campaign waged by old regime protagonists to exclude democrats and revive the police state.  A new adminstration was sworn in on Saturday by new Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, a former official in ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak's ruling party and an MP under his tenure.

"The state hawks think the dust has settled and their battle with the [Muslim] Brotherhood is now over and that it's time to exclude others and grab power and re-introduce the police state," said Farid Zahran, political analyst and deputy head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, of which El-Beblawi is a leading member.

The once-ruling Brotherhood movement has been battered by a sustained security crackdown since Morsi's ouster that has seen hundreds of Islamists killed and thousands of others, including much of the group's upper echelons, thrown behind bars.

"The strong antagonism created by local media towards the 2011 uprising in recent months, portraying it as a power-grabbing attempt by the Brotherhood, and asserting that 30 June is the real revolt, epitomises the campaign to push out democratic forces from the scene," Zahran said.  

Lack of transparency

With a new adminstration in place, critics say it is inauspicious amidst ambiguity surrounding the reshuffle and a likely brief tenure until a presidential poll due in April brings a new president to power.

"It's an extension of its predecessor: a lack of transparency about who comes and who leaves, an absence of a clear-cut programme and a typical reactive approach," said Waheed Abdel-Meguid, spokesperson of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a key opposition grouping during Morsi's presidency.

The reshuffle surprised even some in the cabinet, with El-Beblawi himself widely said to have been forced to resign.

"Ministers in the [outgoing] government were hanging by a thread. They accepted to enter a dark room and be part of an ad-hoc system where nobody knew what they were going to do. And this continues to be the case with the new adminstration," Abdel-Meguid explained, adding that he turned down the culture portfolio in one of the post-revolution governments due to prevalent arbitrary decison-making on the part of authorities.  

Most of the ministers in the departing cabinet have been kept on in the new line-up which has done away with leaders of political parties and brought in some new business magnates.

Army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, tipped to be the next head of state, has retained his post as defence minister in Mehleb's 31-strong cabinet. El-Sisi, whose popularity has skyrocketed since he led the ouster of Morsi last summer, has yet to announce his candidacy, but several officials say he has decided to run for president.

'Sinking ship'

The uneasy alliance of pro-democracy advocates, right wingers, leftists and even old regime figures and Islamists who coalesced last summer to demand Morsi's overthrow and now lack a common cause are being used to bear the brunt of the country's current malaise, say some observers.

"El-Beblawi's [forced] resignation was one of many steps towards dissolving the 30 June alliance," Zahran said of the forces that backed last summer's mass protests that led to Morsi's ouster.

With a government of the likes of internationally-renowned opposition figure and former UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, liberal politician  Ziad Bahaa-El-Din, and law professor and outspoken critic under Mubarak Hossam Eissa in the vanguard, the outgoing cabinet was relatively seen as being a cross-section of the revolution's stripes, which appears absent in the new make-up.

Discord within the cabinet came to the fore early on when ElBaradei quit as vice president almost a month and a half into office after security forces violently disbanded two pro-Morsi protest camps, leaving hundreds dead in one of the worst bloodbaths in decades.

Other controversies also caused faultlines within the cabinet, including a new law that bans all but police-sanctioned protests, and the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

"The revolutionary figures were on the horns of a dilemma in the face of mounting criticism from media and the public," Zahran said.

"[We] did not want to withdraw from the scene, so we're not blamed for leaving a sinking ship, and were rather seeking to retain that bloc that brought down the Brotherhood."

Mehleb: The right choice?

The January resignation of El-Beblawi's deputy, Ziad Bahaa El-Din, a moderate who had been at loggerheads with other government hardliners for sponsoring an initiative favouring political inclusivity should the Brotherhood renounce violence, was another sign of a growing chasm.

In recent months there were increasing disenchantment with El-Beblawi for failing to keep a vice-like grip on the country's security -- a task analysts say belongs to Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, both holdovers in the incoming cabinet.

Since Morsi's overthrow in July, Egypt has been rocked by a deadly Islamist insurgency that has severely decimated investment and an already plummeting tourism industry, vital to keep economy afloat.

But for some, Mehleb, once a long-serving head of a leading construction conglomerate and an outgoing housing minister, is not the man for the current phase.

"The selection of Mehleb, a successful technocrat administrator, and his formation of the new government with some businessmen, does not seem to strike a much-need political balance," said Akram Al-Alfy, a political researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"Egypt's transition needs an economist politician who can get to grips with challenges of instability and economic woes," he added.

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