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Bolts from the blue
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 09 - 2015

The appointment as prime minister of Sherif Ismail, a technocrat with limited political experience and whose health is reported to be frail, took many commentators by surprise.
Ismail, like his predecessor Ibrahim Mehleb, served under Hosni Mubarak. Between 2005 and 2007 he was chairman of the Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) which granted Mubarak's business associate, Hussein Salem, exclusive concessions to export gas to Israel.
On Monday Ismail denied accusations in the local media that he abused his position as petroleum minister, in which capacity he had served since 2013, to appoint relatives, including his wife, to lucrative posts. Ismail pointed out that his wife has worked as an engineer with a private oil company since 1984, long before he joined the cabinet.
Under article 146 of the 2014 constitution, the president of the republic is empowered to appoint and dismiss governments if there is no sitting parliament. If parliament is in session the president must first seek the approval of two thirds of parliamentary deputies.
Article 146 also states once a new parliament is elected the incumbent government must resign. This means Ismail's government will be short-lived.
“Article 149 means that if President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi decided to rename Ismail after a new parliament is elected he will first have to secure the support of two thirds of MPs,” says leading constitutional lawyer Shawki Al-Sayed.
Egypt's long-delayed parliamentary elections are due to be held in October and November. If they proceed as scheduled a new parliament could be in place in late December or early January. “It looks like Ismail's government will be in place for just three months. It seems to be an interim administration,” says Al-Sayed.
Ismail's appointment was not the only surprise this week. Addressing a group of young people on Sunday Al-Sisi said “the new constitution was written with good intentions but this is not enough to govern a country”.
The statement set off alarm bells in some political quarters where it was interpreted as signaling that the president wants to change the constitution and retrieve powers that have been delegated to parliament.
Al-Sayed has a different take. “What I imagine Al-Sisi meant,” he says, “is that the new constitution grants greater powers to parliament, especially in the area of endorsing governments, and did so in the belief that elected deputies will exercise these powers wisely, without creating problems with the president.”
“Al-Sisi was anxious to tell young people, indeed all voters, that they should take care in electing deputies since the consequences will be grave if an uncooperative parliament is created.”
Ismail was named prime minister two hours after Mehleb and his government resigned on Saturday.
“Al-Sisi accepted the resignation of Mehleb and his government without hesitation. He had also made up his mind already that Ismail would be the best replacement,” says journalist and political analyst Mustafa Bakri. “I think Al-Sisi probably chose Ismail a week ago.”
“The first sign something was amiss was the detention of agriculture minister Salah Hilal on 7 September on corruption charges. Later Mehleb withdrew from a press conference in Tunisia, providing space for the announcement of Ismail as prime minister.”
Bakri believes Ismail was chosen as Mehleb's replacement “because Al-Sisi wanted a politically neutral figure to be in charge until parliamentary elections are held”.
Al-Sayed agrees, dismissing analyses that suggest Ismail's government will adopt a long-term strategic vision as wide of the mark. “Ismail is a technocrat who will be prime minster for a couple of months. He is not there to pursue long term strategic goals.”
Ismail may have won the confidence of the president for his impressive performance as petroleum minister. During his tenure, and under extremely difficult circumstances, he was able to clear $7 billion of debts to international oil companies.
“Al-Sisi might have calculated that Ismail had delivered an outstanding performance in the gas and oil field and could replicate these successes in other areas as prime minister,” says Bakri. “We will only know if this is the case if he stays in office after a new parliament is elected.”
Ismail's selection may have puzzled commentators, but so too did the dismissal of Mehleb, widely seen as a hands on, go getting administrator deserving of his moniker, the bulldozer.
Political analyst Gamal Zahran sees the opacity surrounding political appointments as a hangover from the Mubarak-era. “You never know why they are appointed or dismissed. The fact is prime ministers in Egypt remain little more than yes men, acting as presidential secretaries,” he says.
The real problem, argues Zahran, is a complete lack of transparency and nowhere was it more in evidence than in the aftermath of this week's accidental killing of Mexican tourists by security forces in the Western Desert.
Extracting credible answers from the authorities “will be the role of a responsible and functioning parliament,” says Zahran.
On this point Zahran is optimistic.
“This autocratic and opaque system will change,” he says. “The new constitution not only obliges the president to explain why governments are dismissed but to provide reasons for even limited cabinet reshuffles.”
Most observers had expected Mehleb to stay in office until a new parliament is elected.
“Not only was Mehleb a hard worker, he did a good job fighting terrorism, delivering on services and oversaw an increase in growth from 1.2 per cent in 2013 to 4 per cent in 2015,” says Bakri. “He was also popular among ordinary citizens who appreciated his modesty and the way he would meet with the public when out and about on official business.”
Prosecution authorities announced this week that Mehleb had been exonerated of allegations of corruption during his tenure as head of the Arab Contractors Company. There have been longstanding rumours of graft connected with the renovation of presidential palaces under former president Hosni Mubarak.
No details of Ismail's new cabinet were available as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.
Almost half of the outgoing cabinet are expected to retain their posts. They include Minister of Supply Khaled Hanafi, Minister of Planning Ashraf Al-Arabi, Minister of Trade and Industry Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, Minister of International Cooperation Naglaa Al-Ahwani, Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman and Minister of Housing Mustafa Madbouli. Questions have been raised about the future of Minister of Finance Nabil Qadri.
Cabinet ministers who have shown outstanding performance in recent months — they include Minister of Electricity Mohamed Shaker, Minister of Urban Development Laila Iskander, Minister of Population Hala Youssef and Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali — are also expected to remain.
Al-Sisi, as president of the republic, has the final say on appointments to the four sovereign ministries — defence, interior, foreign affairs and justice.
While most press reports agree that Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhi will remain, the fate of the other three ministers seems less certain.
Al-Ahram daily expects Minister of Interior Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar to stay, but other newspapers are not so sure. Reports have appeared that he will be replaced by assistant interior minister for public security affairs Kamal Al-Dali.
Ismail met with Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zend on Monday, leading to speculation he would not leave office. Opinion was evenly split over the future of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.
Al-Ahram quoted informed sources saying Ismail's cabinet would see new faces heading the agriculture, health, local development and education portfolios.
There is also speculation that the position of minister of information, abolished in June 2014, will be resurrected, and that the ministries of population and health will be merged.


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