Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi surprised the nation Tuesday by naming an obscure bureaucrat as his new prime minister to form a government that probably will be held in check by military leaders during an unsteady transition to democracy.
The appointment of Hesham Kandil, water minister in the outgoing military-appointed Cabinet, kept with Morsi’s vow that his prime minister would not come from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party. Morsi, who ran as a Brotherhood candidate, is under pressure from secularists and Christians not to choose a government dominated by Islamists.
But the untested Kandil faces enormous challenges. The country is beset by financial problems, sharpening political divisions and religious mistrust, and is under the tight grip of a cadre of generals, which controls legislative powers and has limited the authority of the president. The choice was a gamble for Morsi, whose credibility will hinge on how quickly Kandil’s unity government can finesse political compromises and stem unemployment, inflation and low wages.
“Patience is required,” Kandil said in a brief news conference. He said that the country’s era of corruption had ended and that he would work to implement the economic and social goals of Morsi’s so-called renaissance program.
The selection of Kandil, who was born in 1962 and is the youngest prime minister in Egyptian history, ended weeks of intrigue. Leading Islamist and liberal politicians have shied away from Morsi’s overtures to fill government posts. It is unclear whether Kandil’s association with the old Cabinet will taint him and whether the military will allow him to independently name ministers for defense, foreign affairs and the interior.
Like Morsi, who was sworn in as president last month, Kandil is a technocrat and a conservative Islamist. Both wear light beards and received doctorates in engineering in the United States, Morsi from USC and Kandil from the University of North Carolina. Kandil served as a senior water engineer in President Hosni Mubarak’s government and was appointed minister of irrigation and water resources in 2011.
Kandil’s ascent startled, divided and angered the political elite.
“He is unknown in public life. He has no economic or political experience. He was simply a senior bureaucrat under the previous regime,” Nabil Abdel Fattah, an advisor and analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said of Kandil. “Will he be able to deal with foreign and local businessmen or the country’s troubled economy?”
Hisham Tawfiq, a board member at Egypt’s stock exchange, said, “I have no idea who this new prime minister is. It was expected the president would appoint someone with economic experience, so this decision is a bit frustrating.... But we will have to wait and see.”
Kandil accompanied Morsi to the recent African Union summit. The meeting was important to Cairo for restoring regional relations that had soured under Mubarak, especially with nations through which the Nile flows. Egypt holds the river’s major water rights but is under pressure from Ethiopia and other countries that want larger shares for farming, electricity and development.
Kandil has worked with the African Development Bank and the Nile Basin Initiative, which outlines water rights and will be crucial in determining Egypt’s future water supplies. But many analysts and politicians wondered whether he would be too pliable and lack the political savvy to navigate the country’s more immediate threat: the military’s political power.
“He is in my opinion a bit soft,” said Alaa Ezz, secretary-general of the Federation of Egyptian Industries, who grew up with Kandil. “You need someone strong and aggressive in this position, to be respected by others. He might not be taken seriously.”
Morsi has attempted to wrest power from the generals, who seized control of the country after Mubarak was toppled last year. They curtailed Morsi’s duties and dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament, stripping the president of a crucial ally. A court ruling on whether the army should cede more authority to Morsi is expected next week.
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.