A nearly-new face
President Mohamed Mursi's appointment of the little-known irrigation minister Hisham Qandil as prime minister has polarised political forces yet again, Gamal Essam El-Din
President Mohamed Mursi's decision on Tuesday to appoint irrigation minister Hisham Qandil, 50, as Egypt's new prime minister has divided Egypt's political elite.
The National Assembly for Change (NAC) -- the movement founded by Mohamed El-Baradei which played a central role in ending the three decade rule of Hosni Mubarak -- expressed concern at Qandil's lack of political and economic experience.
"People were expecting someone with extensive economic experience to be appointed prime minister," says NAC's spokesperson Ahmed El-Noqr. "Instead, the new prime minister is an engineer whose experience is limited to the technical problems of irrigation."
El-Noqr also questions whether Mursi has kept his promise to appoint a non-Brotherhood prime minister. He claims Qandil was not only a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before he left Egypt to study in the United States in the 1990s but "a devotee of the group's firebrand cleric Safwat Hegazi".
Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), welcomed the appointment, insisting that Qandil is an independent figure.
The FJP's Essam El-Erian told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the appointment of the patriotic and independent Hisham Qandil came after much study and discussion".
Everyone, says El-Erian, should support him "as Egypt works to surmount pressing economic and political obstacles".
El-Erian denies that Qandil was ever a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or any other Islamist group.
Qandil, who describes himself as a religious man, told reporters on Tuesday that he had grown his beard in line with the Sunna (Prophet Mohamed's traditions and practices). He insists his government will include representatives from all political factions, and that it will be committed to implementing Mursi's "renaissance project" alongside his 100-day programme aimed at ending traffic problems, lack of security, fuel shortages and the non-collection of garbage.
Qandil's appointment received a cautious welcome from the Brotherhood's ultraconservative Salafist partners.
"Mursi had kept his promise by picking an apolitical technocrat," said the Nour Party's Younis Makhyoun. "Political forces should support his unity government rather than question his ideological background."
Qandil has said his government will comprise mainly technocrats, though it is unclear how many secularists would be willing to serve in his cabinet. Most commentators expect the new government to be dominated by Islamists.
"Qandil will find it difficult to form a national unity government," warns leading Tagammu Party member Hussein Abdel-Raziq. "Many liberals and leftists will find it impossible to join a government led by an Islamist committed to turning Egypt into a religious state."
"Mursi promised that he would pick a prime minister from outside the Muslim Brotherhood. He had broken that promise," says economist Hossam Eissa, "and there is no reason not to expect the cabinet to be swamped by Islamists."
"I suspect Mursi fell back on Qandil after he realised most high-profile economists would refuse to serve under him, or lead a cabinet dominated by the Brotherhood."
"Qandil," says Eissa, "is unlikely to prove a strong prime minister and will be easily manipulated by the Brotherhood's supreme guide and his deputy, the hugely wealthy business tycoon Khairat El-Shater who is expected to be appointed deputy prime minister and be handed overall responsibility for economic policy."
Similar concerns were voiced by the Wafd Party's Eissa Shiha. "Qandil will be a shadow prime minister," warns Shiha, "while businessman El-Shater will be the real power."
Qandil replaces Kamal El-Ganzouri, a Mubarak era official who over the last eight months has managed the difficult task of stemming the erosion of foreign currency reserves.
"At least El-Ganzouri was fully aware of the fault lines that criss-cross the Egyptian economy. It is foolhardy to replace him with an inexperienced engineer like Qandil," says Shiha. "The new prime minister's only qualification appears to be that he is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, one way or another. It's not enough to meet the daunting challenge of getting the economy back on track and of securing the confidence of investors."
Qandil's appointment was received nervously by the markets, with Egypt's main stock market index falling 0.7 per cent on the news.
Qandil says he has a free hand in choosing his cabinet and that "each minister will have complete authority over his portfolio", though he has conceded appointments to the so-called "sovereign ministers" -- defence, interior and foreign affairs -- are subject to consultations between the president and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
"Qandil will have full authority in forming the government," insists FJP official Saad El-Husseini. El-Husseini, chairman of the outgoing parliament's budget committee, is tipped to be a finance minister in Qandil's government. He is expected to be joined around the cabinet table by many of his Brotherhood colleagues -- FJP officials say they expect at least half the new cabinet to be drawn from its ranks -- including Mohamed El-Beltagui (as minister of health), and Hamdi Qandil as minister of information.
Current Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim says he does not expect to remain in office. Recent press reports suggest his most likely replacement is Emad Hussein, a former chairman of the Police Academy.
The new prime minister graduated from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering in 1984. Following post-graduate studies in the United States he held several public sector posts in the field of irrigation, served for a short time at the African Development Bank and was then appointed head of Egypt's Nile Water Sector. Between 1999 and 2005 he headed the office of the minister of irrigation.