Egypt's cabinet resigns, ducking growing anger over economic hardship

The resignation of the Egyptian prime minister and his cabinet is seen as preparation for a presidential bid by Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but there may be more to the story.

Hassan Ammar/AP/File
Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (c.), Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem ael-Beblawi (r.), and army's Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sedki Sobhi (l.) attend the funeral of Giza Police Gen. Nabil Farrag in Cairo Sept. 20, 2013. Mr. Beblawi announced Monday the resignation of his cabinet, a surprise move that could be seen as preparation for a presidential bid by Mr. Sisi.

Egypt’s interim prime minister submitted his cabinet’s resignation today, surprising even some members of the cabinet and fueling speculation over the presidential ambitions of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led last July's coup.

Sisi, the outgoing defense minister, is widely expected to run in the upcoming elections, and to win by a landslide. Since he has to resign his cabinet post before he declares his candidacy, speculation is rife that a presidential bid is imminent.

Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi's decision also highlights the political pressures facing Egypt's interim leadership, suggesting that even if Sisi’s path to the presidency is smooth, his tenure could be bumpy. 

The cabinet resignation comes amid a string of labor strikes, including one by public transport workers and garbage collectors. Headlines have also been dominated by news of an energy crisis that frequently plunges households across Egypt into darkness – a regular occurrence in summer, when air conditioners are running, but rare in winter. 

"[This cabinet] made every effort to get Egypt out of the narrow tunnel in terms of security, economic pressures, and political confusion," Mr. Beblawi, who has led the interim government since last summer, said in a televised speech. “It is time we all sacrificed for the good of the country."

He called on ordinary Egyptians to shoulder greater responsibility for the deep-rooted social and economic problems that past administrations have been unable to solve. “Reform cannot take place through the government alone,” Beblawi said.

A cabinet reshuffle was widely expected, but Monday's en masse resignation still came as a shock to many, including some of the ministers involved. The cabinet members will stay on in a caretaker capacity until interim President Adly Mansour replaces them. 

Speaking to The Christian Science Monitor on condition of anonymity, a number of government officials said that Beblawi’s announcement had taken them by surprise, indicating that only key members of the cabinet were consulted.

Nathan Brown, a longtime Egypt scholar at George Washington University, suggests that this latest development may signal that Sisi is "jettisoning" his largely ineffective cabinet to avoid tarnishing his image in the run up to the presidential poll due to be held by April. 

“Sisi measures his words extremely carefully in public, associates himself with virtually no policy positions, and issues only a few emotional and patriotic public pronouncements,” Professor Brown says. 

Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster, Sisi has become the subject of a cult of personality among some Egyptians and is credited for rescuing Egypt’s democratic trajectory after Mr. Morsi’s disastrous year in office. However, under Sisi's leadership, Egypt has seen a crackdown on dissent comparable to that of the dictatorial rule of former President Hosni Mubarak.

While the unpopular cabinet has been widely blamed for Egypt’s myriad economic problems, Sisi has largely escaped blame. He is more associated with the far-reaching crackdown against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition voices. The repression has been framed as a necessity for Egypt to return to stability, but critics say the government is trying to extinguish even the faintest signs of resistance. 

In a statement released online, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party said that Monday’s cabinet resignation was intended to “absorb Egyptians’ anger."

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