President Mohamed Morsi named Hesham Kandil, a relatively young and unknown minister in the previous government, as Egypt’s new prime minister today, more than three weeks after Mr. Morsi took office.
The delay in naming a prime minister, as well as Mr. Kandil's relatively obscure background, hint at the president's difficulty in finding someone who was both an independent figure and also willing to take on leadership of Egypt’s cabinet at a time of economic hardship and political polarization.
The appointment of Kandil, minister of water resources and irrigation in the outgoing cabinet, came as a surprise; weeks of speculation have focused on figures with backgrounds in economics or banking. Kandil was appointed to head the ministry last year, after a career in the public sector dealing with water issues. He has also worked on water resource issues for the African Development Bank.
Before he was announced the winner of a divisive election, Morsi gained the support of some non-Islamist pro-revolutionary figures by promising to appoint an independent prime minister and avoid a cabinet dominated by Muslim Brotherhood figures. One of them was Shadi el-Ghazali Harb, a member of a coalition that served as an intermediary between the protesters in Tahrir and the government during and after the uprising.
Mr. Ghazali Harb says Kandil’s appointment appears to keep that promise, but noted that he will wait until a deputy prime minister, vice president, and the rest of the cabinet are appointed to render a verdict.
“Our first recommendation was a strong political figure to lead the cabinet,” says Ghazali Harb. “But even if there was a tendency to choose a technocrat, we thought an economic background offers a better choice for a candidate for this position because of the economic problems that we're suffering from. But choosing someone from a totally different background – whatever his experience and whatever his performance in his ministry – it does raise a lot of question marks.”
Ghazali Harb says Kandil appears to have served well in the water resources and irrigation ministry, but worries that his experience is limited to that sector and that he may not have what it takes to lead Egypt through an economic crisis.
Ghazali Harb says that several prominent Egyptians with backgrounds in banking or economics turned down the post.
It is unclear when the rest of the cabinet will be named, or how much power Morsi and Kandil will have to choose and later influence its members. Morsi is locked in a power struggle with the military council that ruled Egypt after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak until his election. The military is likely to retain influence over some posts, such as the defense and interior ministers.
Kandil completed postgraduate studies in the United States, earning a doctorate in irrigation at the University of North Carolina in 1993, according to the ministry’s Facebook page. He said in an interview with Al Jazeera last year that he did not belong to any Islamist group and was an independent citizen.
Although he is not well known, he has a background in an important issue for Egypt – a dispute with Nile basin countries upstream from Egypt over the rights to the water in the Nile. He traveled with Morsi this month to an African Union summit in Addis Ababa.