CAIRO – Egypt’s interim leader swore in a Cabinet on Tuesday that included women and Christians but no Islamists as the military-backed administration moved swiftly to formalize the new political order and present a more liberal face that is markedly at odds with the deposed president and his supporters.
The changes came at a time of deep polarization and violence in Egypt, including new clashes that killed seven people as part of the continuing bloodshed that has marked the days after the armed forces coup that swept President Mohammed Morsi from office and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s military already wields great influence behind the scenes, and the army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who ousted Morsi on July 3, was given a promotion in the Cabinet. He became a first deputy prime minister in addition to keeping his post as defense minister.
For most of the two years since the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the country has been split into two camps – one led by Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, and another led by secular Egyptians, liberals, Christians and moderate Muslims.
The fault lines remain, except that the Islamist camp is no longer in power. It does not include members of any Islamist parties – a sign of the enduring division that follows the removal of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president.
The interim president’s spokesman had earlier said posts would be offered to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the group promptly refused, saying it would not take part in the military-backed political process and would continue protests until the legitimately elected Morsi is reinstated.
“We refuse to even discuss it,” a senior official of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, told The Associated Press. “What is built on illegitimacy is illegal,” he said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media before the party issued a formal statement on the formation of the Cabinet.
The only Islamist party that supported Morsi’s ouster – the ultraconservative Salafi el-Nour party – was not represented and criticized the leadership as “biased,” lacking inclusion and repeating “the same mistake the last government was blamed for.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he had talked with el-Sissi about 10 times in the past week.
“We have encouraged publicly and privately the leaders of Egypt, including the interim president, the interim vice president, and the prime minister in particular, to be inclusive, to bring all political parties in, to allow them to participate in the writing of the constitution and the elections,” Hagel told reporters in Florida. “That’s the only way it will work. We’ve been very clear on that.”
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, an economist in his 70s, leads the government of 33 other ministers. Sworn in by interim President Adly Mansour, it reflected the largely liberal, secular bent of the factions who brought millions into the streets at the end of June calling for Morsi to step down and backed el-Sissi’s removal of the president.
Women have a somewhat higher profile in the government, with three ministries – including the powerful information and health ministries. Most past governments for decades have had at most only two women.
The Cabinet also includes three Christians, including one of the three women, Environment Minister Laila Rashed Iskander. That is also a first, since successive governments had no more than one or two Christians.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, appointed by Morsi, remains in his post, which oversees the police. Nabil Fahmy, who was Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1999 to 2008 and a nuclear disarmament expert, becomes foreign minister.
In a nod to the revolutionary youth groups that engineered the 2011 uprising and this year’s massive protests, Mansour renamed the Justice portfolio the Transitional Justice and National Reconciliation Ministry and gave it to Mohammed el-Mahdi, a career judge.
The groups have been campaigning to bring to justice those responsible for the killings of hundreds of protesters since Mubarak’s fall. Reconciliation is a longstanding demand by most political forces to end Egypt’s polarization, which often spills over into street violence.
At least three senior figures from the National Salvation Front – the main opposition group during Morsi’s year in office – were included in the government. In addition, the new deputy prime minister in charge of international cooperation, Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, is a member of the Social Democratic Party, which is part of the Salvation Front.
Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the Front’s top leaders and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has already been installed as Mansour’s vice president.
In a first, Mansour also swore in a leading figure in Egyptian soccer as sports minister. Midfielder Taher Abu Zeid starred in Cairo’s el-Ahly club and the national team in the 1980s. He was a member of the national squad that won the African Nations’ Cup in 1986.
The Cabinet is to run the country during a transition period announced last week by Mansour. The plan includes the formation of panels to amend the Islamist-drafted constitution that was passed under Morsi, then elections for a new parliament and president early next year.
After the swearing-in ceremony, the Cabinet held its first meeting and set the government’s priorities as reviving the economy, bolstering public security and improving services, according to a palace statement.
El-Beblawy and his team face the formidable task of showing they are more efficient and resourceful than their predecessors. Egypt’s economy has been worsening in the past two years with flight of capital and investors, slumping tourism and high unemployment among its 90 million people.
A $12 billion aid package from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates should help, but harsh reforms — such as lifting or gradually phasing out fuel subsidies — are still needed to put the economy on solid ground.
The new government will also have to tread carefully as it begins to deal with almost-daily street protests and violence by Morsi supporters if it is to revive the vital tourism industry and lure back investors.
Morsi’s supporters are holding sit-ins in cities around the country, including two in Cairo. They accuse the military of carrying out a coup that has destroyed Egypt’s democracy.
Riots broke out overnight with police firing volleys of tear gas at protesters, who burned tires, threw rocks and blocked traffic on a main road running through the heart of the capital. The Brotherhood said police used birdshot and live ammunition.
At least seven people were killed and 261 injured in the clashes in four different sites in Cairo, according to Khaled el-Khateeb, the head of the Health Ministry’s emergency and intensive care department. Four of the seven were killed in fighting between residents and Morsi supporters staging a sit-in near Cairo’s main university, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Egypt’s state news agency said 17 policemen were injured and 401 people have been arrested.
Violence between Islamists and security forces on July 8 left another 54 people dead – most of them Morsi supporters.
Tuesday’s violence broke out a day after Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the most senior U.S. official to visit Egypt since Morsi’s ouster, concluded talks with Mansour, el-Beblawi and el-Sissi in which he called for the Brotherhood to be included in the political process.
Burns also spoke by telephone with a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. Ventrell would not identify the Brotherhood representative or give details on the call.