Arguments and pointed questions arise on trains and in coffee shops over Hesham Kandil, appointed to the post this week by President Mohamed Morsi. "Who is this guy? Is he strong enough to get us out of this hole we’re in?"
As the country tries to break the grip of the old guard, many Egyptians have been hoping for a cohesive government to tackle economic and political hurdles that have mounted since last year’s winter uprising overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Kandil has so far not inspired. An irrigation expert, the U.S.-educated engineer who served as water minister in the outgoing government has a vague political record. He appears as a mystery, an untested bureaucrat who has risen at a pivotal time in the transition to democracy.
"He was a water minister. He may have been good at what he did, but you can't put him in a situation where he has to fix economic and political crises," said Ahmed El Sawy, a 67-year-old garage owner.
Egyptians, who complain of a history of government corruption, say it's unclear whether Kandil possesses the resolve and political instincts to counter resistance from remnants of the old regime. El Sawy believes Egypt needs a patriarchal leader: "We are a people who need to be whipped into shape."
Ahmed Awadalla, a human rights advocate, expressed similar feelings: "We need someone who’s efficient with a record of contributions. His record isn’t there."
The appointment of Kandil fulfills Morsi's promise that he wouldn’t name a prime minister from the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. But many Egyptians are dismayed that Morsi's new prime minister served in the Cabinet of the outgoing, and much despised, military-backed government.
But Morsi has had to navigate sensitive political terrain. The generals hold legislative and some executive powers and have long been suspicious of Islamists. That forced Morsi to choose a prime minister acceptable to the military while at the same time compliant enough to push ahead Morsi's Islamist social and economic agenda, known as the renaissance project.
Ibrahim Farag, a Morsi confidant, told The Times earlier that the president would not consider a high-profile figure for prime minister, such as Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and member of the secular opposition. Such a personality could have impeded Morsi's political ambitions and challenged his programs.
Kandil, who wears the light beard of a devout Muslim, has vowed to fulfill Morsi's vision. The president has given him the task of forming the Cabinet. But the central question is, how much influence will the military exert in the picking of the new government?
That prospect was raised when Kandil, who had said he would name his Cabinet on Saturday, abruptly postponed the announcement. His office said "consultations" were still taking place. The military has made clear it wants a say in the naming of a number of ministers, notably the defense minister.
Photo: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, left, meets with the man he named his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, at the presidential palace in Cairo on July 22. Credit: Ahmed Mourad/Associated Press/Egyptian Presidency