The appointment of a Mubarak regime technocrat as prime minister raises few eyebrows in political circles, Gamal Essam El-Din reports
A government of technocrats is expected to be in place next week. Outgoing housing minister Ibrahim Mehleb, onetime member of president Hosni Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party, was asked on Tuesday by interim President Adli Mansour to form a new government.
Monday’s resignation by prime minister Hazem Al-Beblawi and his entire cabinet took analysts by surprise despite the recent flurry of stories promoting Mehleb as a possible replacement for Al-Beblawi.
Hani Mahmoud, the outgoing minister of administrative development, told reporters he had been summoned by phone on Monday morning to attend a rescheduled cabinet meeting. “It began with prime minister Al-Beblawi briefly informing ministers that he had decided to resign to make room for the appointment of new blood. Most cabinet members were taken by surprise. We assumed the weekly cabinet meeting had been rescheduled so the prime minister could fly to Nigeria on the same day.”
Al-Beblawi, said Mahmoud, informed his cabinet members that he had told Mansour on Sunday that his government had completed its job having worked to contain the violence that exploded after 30 June, improve security conditions and hold a referendum on the newly-drafted constitution. “I think we can be proud of what we have achieved. Now it is the time for a new government to take charge,” Mahmoud cited Al-Beblawi as saying.
According to cabinet spokesman Hani Salaheddin, the “prime minister told the cabinet meeting that the coming stage in Egypt’s life is critical and that a new government was required to implement the second stage — holding presidential and parliamentary elections — of Egypt’s post-30 June political roadmap”.
Speculation that a wave of industrial action in the last two weeks hastened Al-Beblawi’s departure is groundless, says Abdallah Al-Sinnawi, a former editor of Al-Arabi newspaper. “These suggestions might furnish some kind of official excuse but the fact is the extent of strikes has been wildly exaggerated. They are limited and have caused little disruption to daily life.”
It is far more likely, says Al-Sinnawi, that the government was forced to resign.
He points out that “Al-Beblawi has been noticeably opaque about the reasons behind his decision.” Al-Sinnawi does not rule out the possibility that the military, led by Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, orchestrated the cabinet’s removal.
“Al-Sisi is expected to run in the presidential polls and it could easily be that the generals concluded a new government, presided over by a younger and more energetic prime minister like Mehleb, would best serve Al-Sisi’s presidential agenda.”
A team has already been assembled to run Al-Sisi’s campaign, says Al-Sinnawi. “From what I hear it includes Mubarak-era foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa as political advisor and the outgoing minister of youth Khaled Abdel-Aziz as executive director.”
It is unclear whether the Al-Beblawi government will remain in office until the new presidential election law, currently being revised by the State Council, is issued, or whether it will depart sooner. “It is possible,” says Al-Sinnawi, that a new government could be formed very soon in which case Al-Sisi will remain as minister of defence until the law regulating presidential polls is finalised.”
In his first press conference on Tuesday, Mehleb said it was up to the president to decide whether Al-Sisi remains as defence minister since the post is one of several sovereign portfolios. Mehleb added the formation of a new government could be completed in a matter of days.
“It seems Al-Sisi is keen to stay in office until the last moment and thus avert any vacancy at the Defence Ministry,” notes Al-Sinnawi.
While there has been widespread speculation that the Chief of Military Staff Sedki Sobhi will replace Al-Sisi as minister of defence, some sources hint the post may remain vacant until after a president is elected.
Ahmed Said, chairman of the Free Egyptians Party, agrees with Al-Sinnawi that Al-Beblawi was pressured into resigning. “No sooner had the prime minister announced his resignation,” points out Said, “than Mehleb was summoned to meet Mansour at Al-Ittihadiya palace.”
Al-Beblawi’s government, in Said’s estimation, was a success.
“It dispersed the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-ins in Cairo and Giza and resisted pressure from those who wanted a more brutal crackdown on the group’s activities and leaders.” Ironically the result of this success was that “Al-Beblawi became the target of a hostile press campaign which accused him of leading the government with trembling hands.”
Industrial unrest, says Said, was a major factor in the sudden demise of Al-Beblawi’s government.
“Appointed at a critical time the government moved bravely to contain the violence being spread by remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood, save state institutions from collapse, achieve greater stability and inject confidence in the stock market. What Al-Beblawi was not able to address were vital social issues like raising the minimum wage for public sector workers and government employees. The government was able to restore stability and lay the ground for an economic recovery but it was taken aback when social unrest and labour strikes exploded in its face,” stated Said.
Said and Al-Sinnawi agree the next government will face two major challenges: holding transparent and free presidential elections and stemming the tide of social unrest and industrial action.
So will Mehleb be up to the job?
“He is young, dynamic and labour-friendly, tending to solve problems on the ground,” says Said. “While many citizens believe Al-Sisi’s election is a foregone conclusion, they hardly envisage him seeking the presidency without first reassuring himself that a government capable of improving public services and the living conditions for the majority of limited-income citizens can be in place.”
During the press conference on Tuesday Mehleb said he and Mansour had agreed that his government must focus on implementing the goals of the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, eradicating terrorism and improving the living conditions of ordinary citizens.
Reform and Development Party head Anwar Al-Sadat argues the new government must be exclusively staffed by technocrats. “It has to be neutral which means the politically affiliated members of the Al-Beblawi cabinet — men such as minister of industry Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour who hails from the Wafd Party — must go to make room for neutral experts.”
Mehleb served under Hosni Mubarak and was a member of the regime’s National Democratic Party. In 2010 Mubarak appointed Mehleb to the Shura Council as a reward for his role, as ex-chairman of the state-owned Arab Contractors company, in renovating the People’s Assembly’s building after it was devastated by fire in August 2008.
“It is telling how a former National Democratic Party member can be appointed prime minister without facing objections from across the political spectrum,” says Al-Sadat. “People are now giving more weight to efficiency than to the political baggage that is being carried.”
Between eight and 12 cabinet ministers are expected to lose their jobs. They include minister of higher education Hossam Eissa, minister of social solidarity Ahmed Al-Boraai and minister of electricity Ahmed Imam.
Al-Sadat thinks it likely that minister of interior Mohamed Ibrahim will remain “though this is not the best thing when it comes to holding transparent elections and it would be preferable to have a neutral interior minister in charge”.
Sources are divided over whether foreign minister Nabil Fahmi will keep his post.
That Mehleb is confident that he can form a new cabinet in a matter of days suggests a radical overhaul of the entire government is off the cards. Whatever new faces appear in the cabinet are likely to be outnumbered by the old.