CAIRO -- The new Egyptian government sworn in Thursday is a vivid testament to the political pressures President Mohamed Morsi faces in appeasing secularists and Islamists as he moves to fix a plummeting economy while attempting to loosen the military’s hold on the nation.
Key ministers in the Cabinet are holdovers from the much criticized outgoing, military-backed interim government. They include Finance Minister Mumtaz al-Saeed and Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council that ruled the country after last year’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Retaining such officials is a sign of the army’s political prowess and of Morsi’s limited choices in drawing experienced politicians from outside the old guard to revive the economy and stem shortages of gas and electricity that have aroused public anger. It also suggests that Morsi, who ran as a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, is keeping his promise not to stack the government with Islamists.
The swearing in at the presidential palace came amid persistent turmoil and the sharpening realization that the president is not a man of bold vision. The military holds legislative authority, the country has yet to draft a new constitution, tensions between Muslims and Christians are rising and activists have criticized Morsi, who was sworn in June 30, for ignoring the spirit of the revolution that upended Mubarak.
But the Cabinet ceremony was a reminder of Egypt’s transformation. A freely elected Islamist president presiding over a government run by military men for six decades would once have been unthinkable. Questions remain, however, over whether Morsi and the prime minister he appointed last week, Hesham Kandil, an untested technocrat who served as water minister in the former government, can avoid political peril.
“The obstacles facing this government are not just economic but there are many serious security challenges,” said Kandil, noting rising crime and weapons smuggling near the borders with Libya and Israel. “We cannot start from zero, but we will build upon the achievements of the previous government.”
The 35-member Cabinet, which includes two women, is characterized more by bureaucrats and a few Islamists than by new voices from a broad spectrum. Activists and secular party leaders, such as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, are not represented. Morsi did not name vice presidents, which he had earlier hinted might include a woman and a Coptic Christian.
His predicament and the nation’s often baffling politics were epitomized by Morsi’s naming former Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri as an advisor. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most potent bloc in the former parliament, had repeatedly called for votes of no confidence against Ganzouri.
The military remains firmly in control. In addition to al-Saeed and Tantawi, other notable carryovers from the interim government are Foreign Minister Kamel Amr and Maj. Gen. Ahmed Gamal Eldin, a top security official named as Interior minister. Activists complained that naming Eldin means little chance of reform in the Interior Ministry, which symbolized Mubarak’s harsh rule.
“I’m not optimistic,” said Mohamed Maree, a leftist activist. “The military council is too infused in the state’s institutions and businesses. This new government will not be able to do anything at all. The military will have the final say.”
One appointment is certain to challenge the old guard. Ahmed Mekky, a former appeals court judge who for years has pushed for reform of Mubarak’s corrupt courts, was named justice minister. Much of Morsi’s political fate rests on upcoming court decisions, including the future of the 100-member panel writing the new constitution.
Islamists took several posts, including Salah Abdel Maksood as minister of Information and Mustafa Mesid as minister of Higher Education. Both are important ministries and appear to be a consolation for the Muslim Brotherhood, which over the last 17 months has been coerced, co-opted and outmaneuvered by the generals.
No ultraconservative Salafis, who won about 25% of the recently dissolved parliament, were given Cabinet posts, another signal Morsi is seeking to limit fundamentalist overtones. Salafis had expected to win oversight of the Ministry of Religious Endowment, but a moderate cleric was chosen instead.
Egyptian media reported that the Salafis turned down the post of environmental minister, claiming they weren’t consulted during the Cabinet negotiations. The move was another indication of the rift between moderate and ultraconservative Islamists in the struggle over the tone of political Islam.
Mustafa Labbad, director of the Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Morsi should have done a better job of appointing “a government representative of the people.”
-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Reem Abdellatif
Photo: Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, left, is sworn in before President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo. Credit: Fadi Fares / Office of the president of Egypt/EPA