And where is the government?

Following Friday’s dramatic violence when over 80 mostly Muslim Brotherhood members were killed in clashes with the police and plain clothed armed men, many wondered about the new government.

That government of 33 ministers took the oath before interim President Adly Mansour as members of the new Cabinet headed by liberal economic expert Hazem al-Beblawi.

Mandated to handle the turmoil in the aftermath of the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, the Cabinet was formed according to recommendations from the Armed Forces, which carried out the ouster, setting the stage for another transition period for Egypt.

But the extent to which the executive branch is empowered to respond to ongoing violence caused by the removal of the president and sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood, remains to be seen

“The way the current crisis is being handled by the government and by the president is questionable,” says Abdallah al-Sinawy, a columnist and political analyst. While both called for a judicial investigation, the Ministry of Interior came out and said they only used tear gas to disperse protesters and there are more than 80 dead, most of whom were killed with bullets in the head.” For Sinawy, the government’s position in this crisis raises questions about its future performance and what can be expected from it.

“If security or the Armed Forces want to intervene to solve a political problem, it should be through the National Defense Council. The government needs to have a stronger presence,” Sinawy explains, referring to a council of mostly military figures tasked with discussing national security issues.

The process of forming (yet another) transitional government followed long negotiations over its political identity as opposed to its function in Egypt’s new transition.

All analysts and activists who spoke with Mada Masr agree that the new Cabinet is a purely political assembly, which aims at sidelining Islamists as part of the power struggle between the military and the Brotherhood.

Labor rights activist and general coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), Kamal Abbas, says that Cabinet members were assigned according to political affiliation rather than expertise in their respective fields.

“I don’t deny that there are efficient names included, but this formation is different from what was announced at the start. The president said the cabinet would have only 15 to 20 ministers after joining some of the ministries together, something which did not happen,” Abbas says.

The make-up of the current cabinet leads Amr Adly, a fellow at Stanford University who specializes in political economy, to believe that the Armed Forces want to include formerly excluded ideological currents to join the transitional period in order to influence the power struggle with the Brotherhood.

“If you look at the membership of the Cabinet, you’ll see that Prime Minister Beblawi and his deputy for economic affairs Ziad Bahaa Eddin are both members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, while his deputy for social justice and higher education minister Hossam Eissa is a former member of the Dostour Party. Ahmed Kamal al-Borai who heads the ministry of social solidarity is a member of the Dostour Party and general secretary of the National Salvation Front. Also, Kamal Abu Eita, [the minister of manpower], is a leader in the Nasserist Karama Party and the former chairman of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions,” Adly says.

“The army is cleverly trying to pull the carpet from beneath the Muslim Brotherhood by putting their opponents in charge, to form a new political coalition that strengthens the vision of an alternative way to rule Egypt,” he argues.  

Adly believes that the new Cabinet is a part of the army’s political plan to polarize powerful circles by coopting different elements, evident for instance in its selection of Abu Eita as minister of manpower to guarantee the loyalty of a large section of the workers. Other nominations show an attempt to appease certain elements of the media and youth, he says.

The government has already announced a number of procedures and initiatives that observers read as attempts to gain support from different constituencies. For instance, the Ministry of Finance has denied any plans to increase real estate taxes, while sources within the ministry confirmed to privately-owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm a strong will to disburse unemployment aid of LE200 for each individual. In another example, after a meeting between the new minister of housing and representatives of the Tamarod movement which mobilized mass signatures demanding Morsi’s departure, the ministry formed an internal committee to select a number of youth as assistants to the minister.     

In the same vein, after the first Cabinet meeting, the prime minister announced plans related to suspending jail sentences for journalists on charges of insulting the president, opting instead for fines, as well as a law to reform the Supreme Press Council and the National Human Rights Council, which had fallen under the authority of the now dissolved Brotherhood-controlled Shura Council. 

However, how sustainable a political cabinet set to reverse the power of the Brotherhood can be, given the country’s growing economic malaises, is open to doubt.

Beblawi’s Cabinet is faced with the burden of a failing economy with the budget deficit of the last financial year reaching LE202 billion. Former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil’s Cabinet had initially planned to limit the deficit to LE135 billion. However, the decreased national income from tourism and different tax returns as well as the fuel subsidies system, which is responsible for the lion’s share of the government’s budget, all led to continued expansion of the national deficit. 

As soon as the Muslim Brotherhood government was overthrown, the Gulf countries who had opposed their regime for fear of disturbing their own political stability, in particular Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, announced a $12 billion economic aid package to Egypt. Half of this is to be deposited at the Central Bank as interest-free funds, while the remainder will be disbursed in the form of grants and petroleum supply.  

Economic experts describe this aid as the safety valve for the Egyptian economy in the coming months, as it will allow demand for oil and food commodities to be met, as well as increase the national reserves of foreign currency, which fell considerably during Morsi’s presidency. 

“Both the economic aid package from the Gulf and the Cabinet’s announcement that it will delay negotiations with the International Monetary Fund are indicative of the Cabinet’s policy. They intend to follow the previous loans policy even though they have experts capable of building fundamental economic reform plans,” Adly says.

This would require, however, bold decisions to start lifting subsidies and increasing some taxes, which are already some of the conditions many speculate are attached to the IMF’s $4.8 billion loan. Such decisions, Adly says, would be difficult to implement at the current moment of social and political confusion.

And whether the interim government should be pursuing economic reform in the first place, is itself questioned by some figures.

Although Ahmed al-Hawary of the Dostour Party thinks that the Cabinet has yet to clarify its economic priorities, he believes that the more important goal now is to efficiently manage the democratic transition process.

“There is no doubt that achieving social justice is a main goal for any post-revolution government, but reality of the current situation means that this goal has to be set aside during the six-month transitional period, especially since the ministerial selection process was so politicized,” Hawary says.

What is more important for the moment, Hawary adds, is for the Cabinet to supervise the parliamentary and presidential elections without bias to ensure a healthy democratic transition.

However, there are expectations that the Cabinet will face new challenges of an army-sanctioned return of pillars of the old regime such as the security apparatus. This may cause a particular problem for some progressive leaders in government.

For instance, Abu Eita, whose labor activism during the Hosni Mubarak and Morsi regimes made his name, declared in an interview with privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper that one of his priorities is to issue a new law for trade unions’ freedoms. This would, he said, replace the old law that has not been modified since the 1970s and which is a key tool in suppressing the work of trade unions in Egypt, subjecting it to the control of the state. 

Abbas of the CTUWS thinks that Abu Eita’s announcement proves the Cabinet’s good intentions regarding trade unions’ freedom, while Adly says that this might disturb other more pillars of the state, more powerful than the Cabinet. 

“Freedom for trade unions and civil society work are considered taboos in the eyes of conservative security authorities who returned to power after the June 30 protest movement [which called for Morsi’s ouster]. The National Security Agency formerly known as State Security are back in the picture and don’t want any disturbance to the power structure.”

“This might cause embarrassment to the Cabinet,” Abbas says, “regarding some of the promises they have made to Egyptian citizens.”   

Omar Halawa 

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