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What's new in Egypt's new Cabinet

Nabil Fahmy is out as foreign minister, the major change in Egypt's new government.
Former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives in a military helicopter before swearing in as Egypt's new president in a ceremony at the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo June 8, 2014. Sisi was sworn in as president of Egypt on Sunday in a ceremony with low-key attendance by Western allies concerned by a crackdown on dissent since he ousted Islamist leader Mohamed Mursi last year. REUTERS/Al Youm Al Sabaa Newspaper (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3SQIU

On June 16, the office of the Egyptian prime minister announced the new makeup of the Cabinet — the first to be formally appointed and sworn in after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military general and former defense minister, was inaugurated as Egypt’s sixth president.

Since Sisi led the removal of Egypt’s last elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, there have been two prime ministers and more reshuffles within the Cabinet. When the first prime minister, the Social Democratic Party member Hazem el-Biblawi, resigned in late February, it was widely suspected that his successor, Ibrahim Mehleb, would preside over the government until at least the parliamentary elections. This latest Cabinet bears that out, but there are a few points to keep in mind, as Egypt moves along on its formal political road map.

Once Sisi’s inauguration was completed, Mehleb resigned and was immediately reappointed by the presidency. That should not strike anyone as surprising, but in his redesigning of Cabinet positions, and the very structure of the Cabinet, Mehleb did change a few things. For one thing, the Ministry of Information, a ministry that has been criticized inside and outside of Egypt, perceived as an obstacle to freedom of the press, was dissolved. However, that is not to say that media regulation has suddenly been done away with. Instead, a "Supreme Council of Information" has been formed, and over the coming weeks and months, it will become clear how much substantive change has taken place.

As the Cabinet was sworn in early on the morning of June 17, most of the major posts remained the same. The defense minister — which neither Mehleb nor Sisi have the formal constitutional authority to change — remains the same, as does the infamous Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim. For the latter, various actors have been calling for his dismissal for months — for very wide and disparate reasons — but it seems unlikely that Ibrahim is going anywhere, until at least parliamentary elections are held.

One minister was reappointed, but to a different portfolio: Laila Iskandar, one of the few female and Coptic Egyptians in public life at this level, was made minister of urban development, having previously served as minister for the environment. Her successor, Khaled Fahmy — not the well-known historian at the American University in Cairo — served in that same capacity under Morsi, but like nearly all of his Cabinet, resigned in protest against Morsi when the June 30 protests erupted last year.

Of the remaining new ministers, there is one big surprise: the appointment of a new foreign minister. The former foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, in office since July 2013, has been moderately successful in promoting the narrative of the post-Morsi authorities in a variety of international forums, despite the challenges. In Cairo, different political sources confirmed to Al-Monitor that within the Cabinet itself, albeit privately, he was relatively more politically moderate than many of his ministerial colleagues, but that did not result in his departure … until now.

Fahmy’s replacement has been his replacement before: Sameh Shoukry succeeded Fahmy as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012, after Fahmy had been deployed to that station from 2004 to 2008. That is probably a good part of why he was appointed as Shoukry’s career has spanned time in Washington and New York, as well as a number of European countries including Britain, Austria and Switzerland. He speaks English and Spanish, which will no doubt assist him further in his engagements with the West.

Egypt’s road map has now traversed two of the major milestones the military-led authorities set in July 2013: the passing of a new constitution and elections for a president. The third major milestone, parliamentary elections, is left. For the next few months, the president has, formally speaking, full discretion in who to appoint as prime minister. The 2014 constitution, passed earlier this year amid controversy, means that once parliament is in session, any prime minister and his Cabinet will have to receive parliamentary approval to become operational. That does not mean members of parliament have to serve within the Cabinet, but it does mean they are imbued, formally speaking at least, with a modicum of veto power.

Of course, at the moment, there is no parliament, and parliamentary elections are not due until the fall or winter, probably around October or November. Mehleb, at least under today’s arrangements — and as all Egypt-watchers know, things can change pretty dramatically — is set to be prime minister until that time. His Cabinet might be reshuffled again before then, but that means the major challenges facing the Egyptian state and society at large will remain his to deal with. 

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