Egypt appoints new prime minister

With more than 200 activists sentenced to prison Tuesday, concerns over autocratic measures continue

In this Nov. 24, 2013 photo, Ibrahim Mehlib, center, tours a government housing project in Ismailiya, Egypt.
AP Photo/Khaled Kandil

Egypt's interim president chose the outgoing housing minister, a construction magnate from the era of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, as his new prime minister on Tuesday, some two months ahead of key presidential elections.

The move to replace veteran economist Hazem el-Beblawi with Ibrahim Mehlib, who successfully led Egypt's biggest construction company for a decade, appeared orchestrated to quell labor turmoil that threatens to trigger wider unrest. Beblawi and his cabinet stepped down in a surprise move Monday.

"There is a need for a fresh face to deal with the strikes," said Mohammed Aboul Ghar, head of Beblawi ‘s Egyptian Social Democratic party, referring to recent mass strikes including workers ranging from doctors to policemen. "El-Beblawi was supposed to stay for two more months but the strikes propelled a speed-up in pushing through the changes."

Army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, who is expected to run for and likely win the upcoming presidential election, overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in July and backed Beblawi's government through tumultuous times, including a crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood party members and a nationwide referendum that adopted a new constitution.

Crackdowns continue

In a separate development, courts sentenced 220 people, most of them Morsi supporters, to up to seven years imprisonment for holding protests against the military takeover without a permit, according to prosecutors. 

And also on Tuesday, an Egyptian court sentenced three members of a prominent political party to three years in jail for campaigning for a boycott of January's constitutional referendum, according to judicial sources.

The three members of the Strong Egypt party, founded by former presidential candidate and ex-Muslim Brotherhood member Abdelmoneim Abul Futuh, were tried in absentia. 

The referendum, which granted the military extensive powers, was the first step in a roadmap outlined by Egypt's interim authorities for a return to democratic rule after Morsi was ousted by the military in July.

Arrests of activists who campaigned against the new charter marred the run-up to the referendum. Activists who spearheaded protests against Morsi and Mubarak have repeatedly accused the military-installed authorities of resorting to autocratic measures.

The government in November passed a law banning all but police-sanctioned protests. Several activists were given jail sentences for organizing or taking part in unlicensed demonstrations.  

Hala Shukrallah, the new head of the liberal Constitution party, which supported Morsi’s removal from power, told the New York Times that Egyptians need to consider the “repercussions of the military’s involvement in the political arena.”

“The military responded to a certain moment regarding removing Morsi’s rule," she said. "This doesn’t mean at all that an oath of allegiance is in place."

Although Sissi's presidential bid is almost certain, the 59-year-old soldier must first leave the military. He is expected, however, to retain the post of defense minister in the Mehlib’s cabinet, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.

A change of government before the presidential vote would also spare Sissi the disruption associated with forming a new one if he becomes president, a near certainty given his sweeping popularity and the relative weakness of his likely rivals — expected to be a leftist politician and a retired general.

Monday’s surprise resignation of Beblawi's cabinet and its swift replacement also suggests that the country' economic woes are daunting to anyone in power.

Beblawi gave no explanation for his resignation, and his silence only fueled criticism over the lack of government transparency and secrecy surrounding major political decisions.

Egyptians deserve to know why he resigned, Shukrallah told the New York Times: “The people aren’t a child that we need to hide secrets from.”

Economic woes

Since Mubarak's ouster in a 2011 uprising, persistent turmoil has sapped investment and tourism, draining the country of its main sources of foreign currency. The military's removal of Morsi and the subsequent street violence have deepened the country's economic woes.

While oil-rich Gulf countries have provided billions of dollars in grants and loans to keep Egypt's economy afloat, doctors, pharmacists and even policemen have gone on strike in recent days. Schools and universities had their mid-year break extended by a month because of concerns over the security situation and the spread of swine flu. An 11-day strike by thousands of textile workers in the industrial city of Mahalla in the Nile Delta ended earlier this week.

Minutes after news broke that Mehlib had been chosen prime minister, he told reporters his cabinet members will be “holy warriors” in the service of Egyptians. He said that his top priorities include improving living standards, combatting terrorism and restoring security. These, he said, would pave the way for presidential elections.

“God willing, the presidential elections will pass and will take place in proper conditions of safety, security, transparency,” he said, adding, “the priority is to work day and night ... anyone in the Cabinet will be a holy warrior to achieve the goals of the people.”

When asked about the strikes, Mehlib said that excessive labor demands could “topple the state.”

Labor official and activist Kamal Abbas saw a positive sign in the resignation of Beblawi's government “in response to the strikes,” but added that workers will wait and see what the new one will bring.

The military sought to head off a backlash over the strike by public transport workers, sending its own buses to ferry passengers across Cairo. "This is to lighten the suffering of citizens and the harm caused by the strikes," said a statement posted on the Facebook page of military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali.

"This is an example of failed response to the strikes. Instead of sending the buses, why don't you talk to the workers and when negotiations fail, talk again until we reach a solution," Abbas said.

Mehlib has a reputation for being a hard worker and a successful chief executive of several large companies. Born in 1949, he is a graduate of Cairo University's school of engineering. He rose through the ranks of the construction conglomerate Arab Contractors to become its chief executive for 11 years before resigning in 2012. He worked in Saudi Arabia for one year before he returned to become housing minister under Beblawi.

Mubarak appointed him to the upper house of parliament, a toothless consultative body called the Shura Council, in 2010. He was also a senior member of Mubarak's now-dissolved National Democratic Party.

Wire services

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