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Meet the Quants, Liberals, and Women Now Running Egypt

CAIRO — As Egypt’s new government takes shape, the appointments to key positions are providing the most revealing look yet at its priorities. A picture is emerging of a team focused on assuring the international community about Egypt’s fate and improving the economic situation to lessen the chances of the sort of massive unrest that ...

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

CAIRO — As Egypt’s new government takes shape, the appointments to key positions are providing the most revealing look yet at its priorities. A picture is emerging of a team focused on assuring the international community about Egypt’s fate and improving the economic situation to lessen the chances of the sort of massive unrest that helped destabilize the country’s former government.

The new government’s foreign policy will be determined by two figures familiar to Western diplomats: Mohamed ElBaradei, who was sworn in yesterday as vice president for international relations, and Nabil Fahmy, who accepted the foreign minister post. ElBaradei made his reputation as the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, while Fahmy was a career Egyptian diplomat who rose to become Egypt’s ambassador to the United States for nine years under Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

A former U.S. official who crossed paths with Fahmy during his time in Washington remembers him as a "professional, first-rate ambassador" — though one who never deviated from Mubarak’s line on human rights. From 2004 to 2006, President George W. Bush’s administration pushed the Mubarak regime hard over its jailing of activists such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour. "Fahmy never displayed the slightest reformist tendencies or sympathies," the former U.S. official said. "He was 100 percent supportive of the old regime."

Egypt’s new economic team is also dominated by well-known figures who have long acknowledged the country’s dire straits. The new prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, is a liberal economist who has referred to the deficit-ridden Egyptian budget as "abnormal" and the country’s demographic growth rate as a potential "disaster." The new finance minister, Ahmed Galal, has also spoken of the need "to fix the entire system" — most notably by expanding the liberalization measures begun under Mubarak in the 1990s.

The new government’s focus on economics should come as no surprise — its performance on bread-and-butter issues will be a decisive factor in its popularity. Former President Mohamed Morsy’s administration is a cautionary tale here: The country’s deteriorating economic conditions helped spur massive protests against his rule; Morsy even devoted a large section of his pivotal June 26 speech to attempting to assuage anger over long gas lines and double-digit unemployment. His successors now must grapple with a situation that is even worse than when he took office: Today, 17 percent of Egyptians struggle to secure enough food, while 31 percent of children under 5 years old suffer from malnutrition.

The looming question is whether Egypt’s new government can strike a deal with the International Monetary Fund for a proposed $4.8 billion loan. The agreement, which many observers believe would also spur billions in private international investment, has so far been held up by Egypt’s refusal to cut its massive subsidies on energy and food. Beblawi has described the subsidies as "unsustainable, and the situation is critical" — but slashing them now could provoke a political backlash that the new government is keen to avoid.

The new government also appears to have made an active effort to include female ministers. At least four women have been selected or are being considered for ministerial posts: Former head of the Cairo Opera House Inas Abdel-Dayem has accepted the post of culture minister, media personality Doria Sharaf al-Din will be Egypt’s first female information minister, community development expert Laila Rashed is under consideration for environment minister, and architect Dalia Sadany is a candidate for the post of minister for scientific research. The final number of female ministers is still up in the air — but it could be an implicit rebuke against Morsy’s administration, which was seen by its opponents as marginalizing the role of women.

David Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. @davidkenner

Tag: Egypt

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