Monday, July 28, 2014
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Egypt’s New Old Government

CAIRO – Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, has appointed his first cabinet, and guess what? It is crammed with officials from the old regime.

Morsi’s government clearly reflects the balance of power between the president and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But it also reflects the strategy of the Muslim Brothers to shift that balance.

Thirty-five ministers were chosen by the new prime minister, Hisham Qandil, seven of whom (including Qandil) were ministers in the previous SCAF-appointed government. Five ministries – information, higher education, youth, labor, and housing – were given to the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Other pro-revolution figures secured several cabinet portfolios as well: education, legal and parliamentary affairs, industry and foreign trade, and most importantly, the justice ministry.

The “power” ministries – interior and defense – were kept under the control of figures associated with the former regime. Field Marshal (and SCAF leader) Hussein Tantawy retained his post as Defense Minister, and General Ahmed Gamal al-Din was appointed to head the interior ministry, whose brutal behavior sparked the revolution.

Gamal al-Din’s uncle, Abd al-Ahad Gamal al-Din, was the ruling National Democratic Party’s parliamentary majority leader during the 2000’s. His nephew was a hardliner during negotiations to release political prisoners, as well as during talks to end the street clashes of November 2011. He was also a witness in the “Giza Officers Trial,” in which 17 policemen were accused of killing and injuring protesters in January 2011. He defended the policemen, claiming that the victims had been killed in “self-defense.”

Nonetheless, Ashraf al-Banna, a co-founder of the reformist General Coalition for Police Officers (GCPO), remains hopeful: “He was an effective deputy [minister of interior]...[so] we expect some reforms. The situation in the ministry is unsustainable.” But others, like the members of the more revolutionary Officers but Honorable Coalition, accuse Gamal al-Din of being a member of a powerful anti-reform faction in the ministry, dubbed “al-Adly’s men” (after former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly).

As for the pro-change forces, Minister of Information Salah Abd al-Maqsud, a leading figure in the Muslim Brothers’ media wing, will control a sector that continues to attack the group and Morsi, even after his electoral victory. The new youth minister, Osama Yassin, another leading Muslim Brother, was the de facto “security chief” in Tahrir Square during the 18 days that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. He belongs to the so-called “iron organization,” a strong, committed faction led by Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s first deputy chairman (deputy general guide).

Likewise, higher education went to Mostafa Mossad, an FJP member who was in charge of the education portfolio during Morsi’s campaign. The labor ministry went to Khaled al-Azhary, a Brother who was deputy head of the Workers Union and a victim of police brutality in 2010.

For the Brothers, of course, everything could change if the government is dissolved after the upcoming parliamentary election. But, even if that happens, the experience, data, and knowledge gained will be of immense value to the Brotherhood.

Four other ministries went to pro-revolution and Islamist figures. Mohamed Mahsoob, a leading figure in the moderate Islamist al-Wasat Party who campaigned against the return of Mubarak-era officials, became Minister of Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Hatem Saleh, the deputy chairman of the Civilization Party, which joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral coalition in the last parliamentary election, was named Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade.

The religious endowment ministry, which influences the country’s main Islamic institution, al-Azhar, went to another of the Brothers’ allies, Talaat Afifi, the deputy head of the Islamic Legal Body for Rights and Reform, which comprises more than a hundred of Egypt’s leading Islamist scholars and activists. Finally, Ahmed Mekki, the former deputy head of the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court, will lead the justice ministry, which is in need of real change. Mekki is a strong proponent of judicial independence, and was dubbed “the revolution’s representative” in Qandil’s government.

Overall, only ten of the 35 ministries went to pro-change forces, with the other ministers a combination of old-regime figures and technocrats without any publicly declared political affiliation. But the choice of the ten ministries was strategically clever, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming battles with SCAF. All of these ministries represent low-cost, soft power: official institutions that can enhance pro-change forces’ capacity to mobilize, give them religious legitimacy, and remove the threat of judicial repression as they strengthen unofficial networks on the ground.

But the SCAF side is applying a similar strategy: strengthening its hold over the key power ministries. For example, in last week’s annual personnel changes at the interior ministry, many of those expected to be removed, owing to accusations of corruption, complicity in repression, or both, were not. A few were even promoted.

The struggle for Egypt thus continues. The “Second Republic” is yet to be born.

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