The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

On Egypt's cabinet shuffle

There has been plenty of commentary on Egypt's recent cabinet shuffle around, as well as profiles of the incoming ministers. Much of the takeaway on this shuffle is that it represents a modest expansion for the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood's presence in the cabinet, and a refusal by the Brothers to reach out to the opposition by including some more neutral figures. While this analysis is correct, I think it misses the broader point of this cabinet shuffle.

When word of an impending cabinet shuffle started spreading a few months ago, it was in the context of the fallout of the crisis over the November 22 2012 constitutional decree (aka "Morsi's power grab" for the opposition) and of the IMF's clear messaging that a) the current cabinet's proposed reforms fell far short of IMF requirements for a loan package and b) more political consensus on these reforms would be required. Along with the evolution of the positions/demands of the National Salvation Front (increasingly centered on setting the right stage for upcoming elections by reviewing the electoral law and ensuring that ministries that have the potential of influential elections are not in the hands of partisans) and the political diplomacy of the Nour Party to resolve the crisis, the outline of a solution was proposed that would involve a compromise pathway to new elections, after which an entirely new cabinet would be formed and a full parliament would have full legitimacy to pass legislation. By that point, elections held before Ramadan were a possibility — but this has not been the case for a few weeks. 

It may be debatable whether such a compromise was reachable. But the more interesting point is why it did not happen, and why the shuffle's initial scope — a big shake-up of government that would  address both economic mismanagement and the political crisis — has been considerably downsized. In my view, it is chiefly the result of the FJP/MB's lobbying with the presidency, and the compromise is between these two camps more than with anyone outside. FJP leaders have made it clear that they resented Morsi's attachment to PM Hisham Qandil and would have liked to see him go. Instead they received a few extra positions, as well as a modest seat (Minister of State for Antiquities) for a member of the Wasat Party, which has faithfully rallied to the FJP since the political crisis began (clearly in the hope of benefiting through future electoral deals and ministerial appointments that Wasat would not get on its own). The FJP is working according to a party logic, where members want to maximize their personal power, that correlates with the MB's wider logic of placing its faithful in positions of influence. This appears to trump what one might assume to be the presidency's need to calm the political crisis.

One result of this cabinet shuffle is that it will become markedly more difficult for anyone to accept the FJP/MB's improbable claim that the government did not represent it and that it is effectively still in opposition. (Indeed, the MB's claim that even this latest cabinet only has 1/3 MB/FJP members is rather moot, Egyptian cabinets have long contained "technocrats" with no partisan affiliation.) The FJP/MB's claim for a presence in the cabinet stems from its electoral success, and it can argue that it still has less of its own in the cabinet than its 45% share of the dissolved lower house of parliament might entitle it to. And, in any case, if the cabinet were supposed to be representative of the political balance, one might ask where are the Salafi cabinet members (some 25% of the dissolve lower house of parliament) and the non-Islamists (another 25% or so). The reality is that the composition of the cabinet remains, as under Mubarak, a presidential prerogative. Morsi and the FJP/MB increasingly "own" this cabinet, and thus its handling of the country in the time remaining to elections. 

It can certainly argued that this is a mistake in light of Egypt's economic deterioration. But there are good reasons for increased FJP/MB control of ministries, and not just those advocated by their supporters, i.e. that these institutions must be purged of ancien regime supporters. The main reason other than the one I highlighted above — that there is intense competition for these posts inside the FJP — is the one provided by the opposition: that control of some of these ministries (information, supply, local administration, interior) will be electorally useful. (This is the same reason that Ennahda has negotiated hard to keep an influence, even indirect, on the ministry of interior in Tunisia.) The name of the game remains "capture the castle".

Beyond that, the identity of the new ministers is secondary, even if there are some interesting additions. Perhaps the most important is Hatem Bagato, a senior judge and legal expert who as minister of parliamentary affairs should be in a position to solve the Shura Council's (currently the only legislative authority, with contested legitimacy since it has full legislative powers despite not being elected to have them and with only an 11% turnout) chronic inability to pass laws that will not easily be countered by a finicky judiciary. His judicial colleague Ahmed Soliman, a judge who support's the FJP's proposed (and widely contested) judicial reform measures, also makes sense as a signal that they are not going to back down on this. (See Nathan Brown and Mokhtar Awad's profiles of these two.) The ministries of agriculture and culture are going to a Brother and a fellow traveler — most probably because these are electorally useful, in reaching out to the rural population and fighting the culture wars that are the Islamists' go-to wedge issues. The appointment of a new finance minister only a few months after a new one had been appointed — and that they are both little-known "Sharianomics" experts — highlights the rather worrying lack of high-caliber candidates the MB has access to in the economic realm, as does the appointment of a refreshingly young but clearly under-qualified former presidential campaign spokesman as minister of investment. The respected and very polished Amr Darrag, a professor of engineering and FJP foreign policy committee head, is a more reassuring appointment as minister of planning and international cooperation — on the latter especially his PR skills should be handy.

In short, this is a shuffle to tackle short-term issues facing the government rather than one that changes its direction. There are skirmishes to fight on the way to the big battle of the next elections, and dealing with the opposition (ranging from Salafi to secular, since they are all against this shuffle) will be left until after the elections, suggesting confidence that the FJP and its allies will dominate in the elections.