Dispatch

Rearranging The Deck Chairs in Cairo

Rearranging The Deck Chairs in Cairo

CAIRO — No one expected it. Even some government ministers were not informed. But just a few weeks before Egypt is due to hold fresh presidential elections, embattled Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi threw in the towel and announced the resignation of the entire military-installed cabinet. 

"I only knew about it when [Beblawi] started speaking," Higher Education Minister Hossam Eissa said in an interview.

Government spokesperson Badr Abdel-Atty was just confused. Asked about the move during a tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said foreign ministry staff had "no idea" why the government quit.

Seven months after Egypt’s top generals overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, Monday’s dramatic decision means the country is once again a rudderless ship. And as the country prepares for presidential elections, in which army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely rumored to be preparing his candidacy, nobody can truly say where the country is heading.

Critics accuse the government, with Beblawi at its helm, of returning to the practices of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where dissent was met with repression. Online monitoring site Wiki Thawra estimates that more than 21,000 people have been arrested since July, and over 1,000 more have been killed. Meanwhile, restrictions on freedom of the press have seen both local and international journalists jailed .

Beblawi, who has come under fire for failing to tackle Egypt’s crippling economic and security crises, offered no explanation for the government’s resignation in his televised address to the nation. Instead, he insisted that his team had done all that it could since since being appointed last summer.

"[L]ike any endeavour, [the government’s performance] cannot all be success but rather within the boundaries of what is humanly possible," he said.

The decision was made during a 30-minute weekly government meeting, which Sisi, who also serves as defense minister, reportedly attended. The meeting reportedly ended abruptly after the Cabinet took the decision to resign, according to Egyptian press reports.

The country has been on tenterhooks, waiting to see whether the popular army chief announces his long-expected bid for the presidency. Sisi has secured the permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to run and is reportedly setting up his presidential program and team of advisers. However, he must quit his role in the cabinet first — fuelling speculation the government’s resignation could pave the way for the 59-year-old field marshal to declare his candidacy.

But it is far from clear that the government’s resignation was coordinated with Sisi. A government source pointed out to Foreign Policy that only Sisi needs to quit in the event of his presidential bid, not the entire cabinet, and suggested that it was the unpopularity of the Beblawi administration that sparked Monday’s resignations. 

"The general feeling is that they are slow in their response to the needs of the public," the official said. "They tried, but it didn’t work out in the end of the day." 

In the last few weeks, Beblawi’s crumbling empire has faced a tidal wave of strikes by furious public sector workers demanding better wages and working conditions. Low-ranking police officers, doctors, pharmacists, garbage men and textile workers are all picketing: In the last few days, the greater Cairo area was brought to a standstill after all 28 bus garages went on strike, the largest such industrial action in the capital’s recent history. Meanwhile, workers at Egypt’s largest public textile company have been on strike since Feb. 10.

Newspapers, meanwhile, have been full of stories about an acute shortage of cooking gas. Electricity blackouts, usually expected in the summer when energy consumption is higher, have become a routine part of daily life in Egypt due to a chronic shortage of fuel. Security conditions have deteriorated alongside the economy: A string of terror attacks have rocked the country, as Sinai-based jihadist groups escalate a low-level insurgency against government security forces.

Ministers in the former government said the problems were so immense that they had long wanted out.

"We were under terrible pressure," said Eissa, who claimed he begged to be reshuffled out of the cabinet.

Beblawi himself tried to resign after the new constitution was ratified on Jan. 18, Eissa said, but interim president Adly Mansour told him to hang on.

"[Beblawi] was fed up a long time ago," Eissa said. "He was under terrible pressure from his family to leave his post, they couldn’t take the insults from the public."

Despite the government’s persistent difficulties, the resignation of the entire cabinet will only increase Egypt’s difficulties in winning the kind of foreign investment needed to bolster its beleaguered economy.

"When so many senior members of government and the state were not aware of the wholesale resignation, that doesn’t send a very inspiring message about cooperation and coordination within government," said H.A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, adding that the move will only compound the country’s myriad problems as it prepares for elections.

Many ministers, meanwhile, may not be going anywhere. Mansour, the Egyptian president, has requested that Beblawi stay in his role until a new prime minister is appointed — which local media reported would be Housing Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, a former member of Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party. The more things change in Egypt, the more — for better or for worse — they stay the same.