A new government formed by an elected president is now in place in Egypt. The prime minister chosen by President Mohammad Mursi to form the first ‘non-interim’ cabinet after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down 18 months ago is a little known technocrat with almost no political experience.
Hesham Qandil was water resources minister in the outgoing cabinet of veteran Mubarak-era politician Kamal Al Ganzouri who becomes a presidential adviser to Mursi. Surprising choice as it looks, some claim the university professor is a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate. Though the new cabinet includes only four ministers from Mursi’s party — Freedom and Justice, the political arm of the Brotherhood — it is not the all-inclusive government the president promised.
With seven ministers remaining from the previous cabinet, the new ministers are apolitical technocrats reflecting a compromise between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf) that held power after Mubarak.
Head of the Scaf, Field Marshal Hussain Tantawi, retained his position as defence minister — therefore, he will keep running the military which still controls legislative power until the election of a new cabinet to replace the dissolved Islamist-dominated one elected a few months ago.
Since the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak from office in February last year, Egypt has witnessed a number of elections and referenda it never had before in such a short period of time. Despite the bumpy road in the transitional period, the political activity in post-Mubarak Egypt is really remarkable and promising. Yet, the rising political forces of liberal and progressive youth — even young affiliates of political Islamist blocs — are frustrated that their presence is not felt.
The new government, which will have to oversee new parliamentary elections soon, is not representative of any ‘revolutionary’ blocs. Talk about a continuing struggle between the Scaf and the Brotherhood is rife among commentators and activists at Cairo’s downtown cafes. Adding to the frustration of activists and young revolutionaries is widespread anger among ordinary Egyptians over continuing power cuts. With the increased power usage in the month of Ramadan and the summer season, no one in Egypt’s main cities and even villages in the countryside has been spared the suffering caused by the intermittent electricity outages.
In general, Egyptians don’t see any improvement on two crucial aspects of their daily life: economy and security. But the main difference now is that they’ve got an elected president and a government they can blame for these problems and even punish in elections. Even if the Islamists claim that they “inherited a heavy burden” and argue that they’re not alone in power, they will still suffer the consequences of a failure to improve the situation. Everybody felt the deterioration under the Mubarak regime and many consider the new government as ‘close’ to Islamists — even if its ministers are not members of the Brotherhood or Salafi parties.
Though the military is considered by many to be in control, the Scaf is taking a back seat and pushing Islamists to the forefront of politics in Egypt.
The first main task for the new government is to negotiate a new emergency loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that might require the ‘rationalising’ of state subsidies. The thorny issue of cutting fuel and power subsidies might lead to social turmoil and will be a clear test of Islamists’ political and popular credentials.
Many ordinary Egyptians are not expecting magic from the Islamist president and his new government, but a new wave of political awareness is sweeping. People are thinking loudly of holding those they elected accountable — contrary to the passivity and indifference characterising Egyptian politics. New groups are forming new political parties and some are trying to avoid the chaos that followed Mubarak’s removal when many new parties were formed haphazardly only to disintegrate or prove incapable of popular penetration.
Some leftists and centrists are trying to augment a social-democratic party while others are forming a rural development-oriented party to incorporate millions of Egyptian farmers in the countryside.
As a friend of mine who writes a daily column in the Al Tahrir newspaper told me, urban Egypt is reclaiming its lead from the apolitical masses of rural Egypt. Though the political arena is still dominated by the old ‘political elite’ consisting of Mubarak-era loyalists and opponents (including Islamists and the SCAF for that matter), new trends are slowly emerging.
Islamists in power will be a good drive for active politics, with their affiliates trying to justify non-progress in running the country and their opponents campaigning to expose the inefficiency of a religion-in-politics approach.
Technically, the interim period in Egypt might be over but in reality the transition from the old regime to a new system is still a process. The rise of Islamists, which will continue as they run the country with the Scaf, is an important step in the process, not the end of the road.
As far as there’s still ‘activity’ in Egypt, it’s a promising sign that the new system is not yet established. Even if the temporary “stability” sought by the Brotherhood materialises, it would not last long.
Dr Ayman Mustafa is a London-based Arab writer