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Arab World

Egypt's mysterious new prime minister

The new Egyptian prime minister presents himself as an independent technocrat, but did President Mohammed Morsi keep his anti-Islamist promises by appointing Hesham Qandil?

In this Wednesday, April 4, 2012 photo former Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation in the outgoing, military-appointed government, Hesham Kandil poses for a portrait in Cairo, Egypt. On Tuesday, July 24, 2012, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, named the young, U.S. -educated Kandil as the prime minister designate and tasked him with putting together a new administration, nearly a month after Morsi was sworn in as Egypt's first freely elected civilian president. (Foto:AP/dapd)

Ägypten Ministerpräsident Hesham Kandil

He is regarded as a technocrat and describes himself as nonpartisan, but religious - Hesham Qandil, Egypt's former irrigation minister. This week, he was appointed prime minister by President Mohammed Morsi and handed the task of forming a government. Morsi had promised to select a candidate who is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but experts disagree how far Qandil really is from the movement.

Technocrat with economic expertise

The Islamist Morsi has chosen a relatively unknown in Qandil. The 49-year-old hydraulic engineer graduated from the University of North Carolina in the US and worked as a irrigation specialist for the African Development Bank. Moving into the state bureaucracy, he first made a career as bureau chief in the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. In July 2011, he was made a minister in the military's transitional government.

Stephan Roll, Egypt expert for SWP think tank

Roll says Qandil's political position remains a mystery

Stephan Roll, Egypt expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), said it was difficult to say why Morsi had appointed Qandil. "One interpretation would be that Morsi wants a man of action who can halfway deal with the economy and can tackle water issues," he said. The water supply and the massive economic problems facing the country are among the major challenges facing Egypt. Since last year's political upheaval, foreign investment has fallen sharply and tourism, the largest source of foreign income in the country, has collapsed. Meanwhile, the budget deficit is growing.

A puppet of the Muslim Brotherhood?

But Roll can also think of another reason why Qandil was chosen. "It may be that Morsi was looking for someone who has no political power of his own, and is easily controllable." In Egypt's system, the president sets the guidelines for policy, and has the power to sack the prime minister. But the role the head of government plays should not be underestimated, Roll warns. "He is in the political spotlight and in the media," he said. "If he can use this skillfully, with charisma and initiative, he can define a certain sphere of power of his own."

Hussein Tantawi with Mohammed Morsi

Tantawi, left, won't give up the defense ministry easily

For Hamadi el-Aouni, political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, appointing a technocrat as prime minister is an important part of creating a manageable government without its own political ambitions. "The Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate its power in any case. It thinks that with only a caretaker government in power, it has a good chance of gaining a majority at the next election together with the Salafists."

Qandil's relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood is unclear. He claims to have never belonged to an Islamist organization, and his career within the state bureaucracy under former President Hosni Mubarak suggests he is not close to the Islamists. Moreover. the Muslim Brotherhood itself has said that Qandil did not belong to them.

On the other hand, el-Aouni points out, one can identify with the politics of a party without being a member. Qandil describes himself as very religious. He wears his beard in the style of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Qandil has Islamist traits - he is not liberal or neutral. Morsi would take care not to choose a prime minister with whom the Muslim Brotherhood does not agree," he said. According to el-Aouni, Qandil will do nothing without the approval of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Power struggle between president and military

Roll also suspects that Qandil is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether he will function as Morsi's right-hand man, or a puppet of the Muslim Brotherhood, Roll cannot yet say. "It is also a question of whether Morsi has the power to make certain decisions," he said. Morsi is in a power struggle with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over in Egypt after Mubarak's overthrow. Chairman of the Supreme Council Hussein Tantawi, for example, would like to continue in post of defense minister.

Qandil had announced he would primarily appoint technocrats as ministers in his cabinet. But there are already rumors that ten ministerial posts will go to candidates with an Islamist background.

Author: Christina Ruta / Ursula Kissel / sb
Editor: Ben Knight

DW.DE