The new cabinet
After much anticipation, a new government has been formed. But can it surmount Egypt's critical problems, asks Abdel-Moneim Said
A new cabinet is born -- the fifth since the January Revolution. It has an unprecedented 34 ministers, which is an anomaly in most parts of the world, except for in those socialist states that have a ministry for every single sector, industry and agricultural field, whether thriving or stagnating. One recalls that the erstwhile USSR had a ministry for agricultural machinery, which is to say a ministry for tractors. The agricultural sector was one of the most unproductive sectors, in spite of the fact that this ministry and a couple of other agricultural-related portfolios were among the 55 ministries that made up the soviet government. Still, we have the first cabinet of the President Mohamed Mursi era. It was a difficult birth -- taking about a month -- and when it arrived we beheld a number of Egyptian wonders.
The size is probably not the greatest wonder, although I have no idea how the prime minister will be able to direct public policy delegated among 34 ministers or, for that matter, whether the prime minister or the president will be doing the directing. Once, when I was a member of the Shura Council, I objected to a newly introduced construction law because, quite simply, it created such a maze of numerous and conflicting bureaucratic structures that I feared that construction would probably grind to a complete halt. By coincidence around that time I had an interview with prime minister Ahmed Nazif who, among other things, spoke of his efforts to streamline government bureaucracy and reduce red tape. I seized the opportunity to bring up the subject of the construction law. He was completely taken aback and asked his aides whether what I was telling him was correct. For my part, I learned that the prime minister had been completely in the dark about a bill that had been submitted to and passed by the People's Assembly and Shura Council.
Of course, it is too soon to tell what the situation will be like in this new era. Will Prime Minister Hisham Qandil fare better than his predecessors before and after the revolution? Certainly, if size is a major problem, it will not be the only one. The new government can hardly be described as homogeneous. It was pieced together out of the candidates who remained after many eliminations and refusals. The process had very ambitious beginnings, with the name of eminent economist Mohamed El-Erian being mooted for the premiership. El-Erian is CEO of an investment management firm that manages assets well over a trillion dollars. Farouk El-Oqda, who was nominated for the Ministry of Finance, may not have managed assets of this size, but to him goes the credit for sustaining the stability of the Egyptian pound, in spite of the upheaval of the revolution and general instability. Although he was urged to accept the post, with some persistence, he declined the offer twice. Why is impossible to say. Perhaps he needed a break, or maybe he thought the circumstances were inauspicious.
In not so remote times, a Cabinet seat was a position some people would give their right arm for. Apparently this is no longer the case now that grief seems to be the lot of the minister in Egypt. In all events, the Cabinet that emerged from the lengthy selection process is an amazing mixture that defied all expectations. In general, speculation had revolved around three possibilities: a government of Muslim Brothers and friends and associates, a coalition government headed by a national figure (of the stature of Mohamed El-Baradei, for example) and representative of all shades of the political spectrum, or a government of technocrats specialising in the problems that most urgently need to be addressed, particularly those related to the economy, security and the realisation of the revolution's goals of social justice. The government that was produced fits none of these categories, largely because, as we suggested above, it consists of the leftovers of envisaged governments. The outcome is that 18 out of the 34 ministers are from the former National Democratic Party (NDP) which, in spite of the fact that it has been dissolved, still has as much influence as the Muslim Brotherhood had in the pre-revolutionary days when it was an officially banned organisation. Nor were some of these 18 ministers just ordinary NDP members. They include prominent members in the NDP Policies Committee, assistants to Gamal Mubarak who is still in prison, and disciples of such luminaries of that era as former minister of investment Mahmoud Mohieddin, former minister of finance Youssef Boutros Ghali and former minister of irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid.
The Muslim Brotherhood, or the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) if you will, does not have such a large share, receiving only four portfolios. Yet five others were reserved for adherents to the same Islamist trend, whether from the Wasat (Centre) Party or sympathisers. More importantly, the Muslim Brotherhood/FJP secured the portfolios that offer direct leverage over the hearts and minds of the people: the ministries of information, education, trade and industry, which is to say the key portfolios for running country's society and economy.
Most of the rest of the portfolios were handed to "technocrats," that collection of ministers who are presumably capable of accommodating to any programme that politicians place on their plate and coming up with the appropriate "technical" solutions in order to put it into effect.
There remains one curious and important phenomenon. It emerged from the dynamics of the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi was named minister of defence and he took the oath of office before the president of the republic, as is only natural in a democratic government. However, neither the president or the prime minister had much choice in the matter, for the current minister of defence is still the head of SCAF which, in accordance with the addendum to the Constitutional Declaration, still holds legislative authority in its hands and which was very influential in the appointments of the ministers of foreign affairs and interior.
Whether or not all this is correct and consistent with democratic development is another question. In all events, the likelihood is that Egyptian bureaucracy is the winner of the day, especially given that the government is still operating under the banner of the "transitional phase" which will continue until a new constitution is promulgated and People's Assembly elections are held. But regardless of the question of winners of losers from the creation of the new government, there remains that perpetually crucial question as to whether it will be able to handle the problem of the economy that has been stalled for much longer than our population of 90 million can sustain. Solving this problem will probably require nothing short of a miracle and there is little to indicate that PM Qandil and his colleagues will be able to produce one. But, let's wait and see.