CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamist president swore in his first new government Thursday, led by a devout Muslim and including five members of his Muslim Brotherhood in unglamorous but ideal ministries for a group whose long-term aim is to Islamize the most populous Arab nation.
The Cabinet is a far cry from the inclusive administration that President Mohammed Mursi has repeatedly promised. No other political factions came on board to join. Women and Christians received only token representation, and figures from the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year were left out.
The choices seemed aimed at playing down fears that the country’s first ever government formed under the Muslim Brotherhood’s aegis will seek to impose quick and radical change. Seven members of the outgoing, military-backed government, including the foreign, finance and culture ministers, have also kept their jobs, a move by Mursi and Prime Minister Hesham Kandil that may have been designed to inspire stability.
Also keeping his post as defense minister is Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who served in the role for 20 years under Mubarak and was Egypt’s military ruler for 17 months after Muabrak’s ouster. The military said several weeks ago that it will decide who serves in the post, and Mursi and Kandil made no move to resist, a reflection of the overwhelming powers retained by the military after Mursi took office June 30.
Kandil, the obscure water and irrigation minister that Mursi picked to lead the new government as prime minister, sought to defend the makeup of his Cabinet. He called on Egyptians to rally behind it, promising it would represent all the people.
“We are all Egyptians in the Arab Republic of Egypt. The coming period is not easy, to say the least, and we are all in the same boat,” he told a news conference hours ahead of the swearing-in ceremony. “This is the people’s government. It does not belong to this or that trend.” He also paid tribute to last year’s 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising, saying his government will work toward realizing the goals of its slogan: “Bread, freedom and social justice.”
The government takes office at a time when tensions are mounting over the country’s seemingly endless woes — from tenuous security and sectarian violence to growing popular discontent over widespread power and water outages and shortages.
In a sign of the chaos, one person was shot to death by police Thursday when a crowd of hundreds went on a rampage against a Nile-side luxury hotel in central Cairo. The crowd threw firebombs at the hotel, smashed its lobby and set fire to 10 cars parked outside, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk the press. Police used tear gas and opened fire on the crowd, killng one person.
The crowd came from a slum located just behind the hotel, which is a twin-tower skyscraper complex that includes a glitzy shopping center and offices. Earlier in the day, several residents of the slum who had been hired by the hotel for protection had tried to get into the hotel to collect back payments. Police stopped them, an altercation ensued, and a policeman shot and wounded one of the men who later died. The larger crowd of nearly 500 returned later and attacked the hotel, the security official said.
Also Thursday, armed villagers in Bani Suef south of Egypt attacked a police camp after reports that a policeman harassed a local woman. The gunbattle at the camp left one villager dead and five others wounded. Residents then attacked the governor’s office, shattering windows and setting fire to police cars.
Earlier this week, sectarian violence in the village of Dahshour south of Cairo saw a Muslim mob torching Christian homes and shops and damaging the local church, events that forced many Christian families to flee the village Wednesday. The attack was sparked when a personal dispute last week swelled into violence and a Muslim man died.
Also, the process of bringing in a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi, to head a ruling system that for decades shunned the group seems to have caused confusion at times.
This week, Israel said Mursi wrote back to Israeli President Shimon Peres, who had sent the Egyptian president a letter wishing him well on the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The president’s office denied sending any reply. The letter was a potential embarrassment since the Muslim Brotherhood has long been hostile to Israel and has said its members in government will have no contact with it — though they have promised to preserve the two countries’ landmark 1979 peace treaty.
The letter, made public in Israel, was sent by the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv and sent to Peres by fax and by courier. It is on the mission’s stationary, not the presidency’s, though it is written in the name of Mursi.
The confusion may have been from a protocol mix-up.
An Egyptian Foreign Ministry official and a source close to the presidency told The Associated Press that Mursi has no intention to communicate directly with the Israelis and that he mandated the Foreign Ministry to take over routine contacts with the Jewish state. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In the new Cabinet, Brotherhood members were given the key ministerial posts of information, higher education, housing and labor. A fifth Brotherhood member was named minister of state for youth.
The information ministry gives the Brotherhood control over the state media, a powerful tool in influencing public opinion. The media had long been mouthpieces for denunciations of the long-banned Brotherhood, and Islamists have criticized the media in turn as lax in safeguarding against Western cultural inroads.
The higher education portfolio gives the Brotherhood control over the country’s universities, a traditional recruitment ground for the fundamentalist group. The Youth portfolio could give it an even wider area for recruitment and religious indoctrination.
The labor portfolio allows the Brotherhood access to labor unions, traditionally the domain of leftist and liberal groups, in which the group has been seeking to gain a foothold. Housing gives the group a key service sector that millions of poor Egyptians look to for construction of lower-cost housing.
The choices of the five ministries may have been made with an eye on the upcoming parliamentary election expected before the end of the year. The Brotherhood dominated the first post-Mubarak legislature, seated in early 2012, but the military generals dissolved it in June following a court ruling that a third of its members were illegally elected.
But Mursi and Kandil reportedly struggled to bring others into the government. Media reports have spoken of many first-choice candidates for the Cabinet from among non-Islamist groups turning down offers for a place in the Cabinet. Egypt expert Michael W. Hannah of New York’s Century Foundation attributed the rejections to the growing lack of trust in Mursi and his Brotherhood.
“Their actions don’t match their words,” he said. “There is a fundamental lack of trust in them along with the Brotherhood’s institutional self-promotion.”
Samer Shehata of Washington’s Georgetown University explains the lack of diversity and inclusion in the Cabinet as partially the outcome of the uncertainty of the powers the new government will have and the weakness of Mursi’s own authority compared to the military’s.
“Mursi does seem to be in a very difficult dilemma … he has been handed a bad set of cards,” he said.
The only two women in his lineup are leftovers from outgoing prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri’s government — Social Affairs Minister Nagwa Khalil and Scientific Research Minister Nadia Iskandar Zakhari, the only representative of Egypt’s Christian minority in the Cabinet. The relative low level of the ministries mirrored the symbolic representation women and Christians had for decades of Mubarak governments.
“We wanted to see a woman in charge of a powerful ministry like education or health,” said women’s rights activist Dalia Abdel-Hamid.
Mursi has said that women and Christians would be named to his presidential team, possibly including a vice president post. The only team member named thus far is el-Ganzouri, who is in his late 70s and served for years as Mubarak’s prime minister, and was appointed as an adviser to Mursi.