The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

How sweet it is

One of the longest serving ministers in Egypt was kicked upstairs yesterday, marking one of the most important political changes to take place in Egypt in years. Minister of Information Safwat Al Sherif, a man who had held a key post for 22 years and has contributed immensely to destroying creativity and nurturing a culture of corruption in Egypt's television and radio networks, will now become the president of the maglis al shura, Egypt's upper house of parliament. Watching him last night on television putting on a brave face and presiding over an awards ceremony - probably one of his last major TV appearances -- was intensely satisfying.

Safwat Al Sherif has created many enemies during his reign as Egypt's information supremo, both inside and outside the regime. As the key official responsible for TV, radio and newspapers, he is reviled by many journalists who have suffered from his dictates. According to one rumor going around town, Al Sherif may have gotten too cocky for his own good: he banned TV editors from showing his longtime rival (and probable replacement) Mamdouh Al Beltagui, the minister of tourism. This does not make sense in any country, especially one trying to promote its tourist industry. There have also been a series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking TV officials, although they've stopped short of reaching Al Sherif.

A prominent Egyptian rights activist once joked that he should be called Safwat Goebbels. He may not have been as nasty as the Nazi propaganda chief, and certainly not as clever, but Al Sherif played his part in the decline of Egyptian media. He will not be missed.

In the meantime, Cairo is rampant with speculation not only about Mubarak's health and his possible successors, but also about a cabinet shuffle announced last week. It's not clear what will happen or when (probably early July or when Mubarak returns from Germany) but it looks like a few of the leading "reformists" in the National Democratic Party will be awarded ministries, with the education ministry being a prime candidate. There is also talk of giving a woman a prominent post, if only to stress that Egypt is committed to carrying out reform. (I don't think the gender of a minister really makes that much difference, but it's good publicity for the regime.) The upcoming cabinet shuffle will hopefully bring some fresh air into the Egyptian government, which sorely needs it. Never mind democratic reform, what the country most immediately needs is competent leadership.