President Mohammed Morsi named nine new ministers to his government Tuesday, including three members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a move that his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, said was intended to re-energize efforts to reverse Egypt’s prolonged economic spiral.
But the new appointments also had the effect of increasing the political isolation that’s grown around Morsi since he assumed the presidency last summer.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive Islamist society through which Morsi rose to prominence, now will control 10 of the government’s 35 Cabinet seats, a development that fed opposition complaints that the president is more intent on strengthening the hand of the Brotherhood than providing good governance. A fourth Cabinet post went to a known Islamist, though he isn’t a formal member of the Brotherhood.
Two of the new Cabinet members – the finance minister and planning minister – replaced the top two officials who’d been leading Egypt’s so far unsuccessful negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion loan.
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The three elevated Brotherhood members were Amr Darag, a top official in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, who was named the minister of international cooperation and planning, Yehia Hamed, Morsi’s spokesman during his campaign for the presidency, who became the investment minster, and Ahmed el Gizawy, who headed the Freedom and Justice party’s agriculture committee and was named the new agriculture minister.
Morsi also named Fayed Abdel Moneim, an Islamic economics professor with no previous government experience, as finance minister.
Morsi had signaled last month that there would be changes in his Cabinet, but he offered no explanation for the individual selections Tuesday. Some interpreted the moves as an effort by Morsi to bolster the Brotherhood’s grip on power. Others said, however, that the choices highlighted how few people outside the Brotherhood were willing to serve in the Morsi government.
Kandil acknowledged that many potential ministers outside the Brotherhood had turned down posts in a government that much of the country considers a failure.
Certainly, any Egyptian Cabinet minister, especially those with portfolios related to the country’s economy, faces a major challenge, something Morsi hinted at when he swore in the new ministers. “Today, you say farewell to sleep,” Morsi told his new ministers, according to Kandil.
So far this year, the Egyptian pound has lost 15 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, a decline that’s been slowed only by the intervention of nations such as Qatar and Libya, which have infused billions into Egyptian reserves.
Wael Gamal, a economic commentator here, said he foresaw little immediate improvement in the economic outlook from the shuffle. “What will really matter is whether the government changes its policy,” he said. “It is not about faces; it is about policy.”
In addition to the heads of finance, planning, agriculture and investment, Morsi appointed new chiefs to the ministries of parliamentary affairs, oil, antiquities, culture and justice. The change in the Justice Ministry post appeared to be a reflection of Morsi’s unhappiness with the previous justice minister, who refused last year to fire judges who’d been appointed during former leader Hosni Mubarak’s time in power.
Morsi didn’t replace his minister of interior despite declining security and mounting frustrations over the lack of police reforms.
On his Twitter account, Amr Moussa, the head of the National Salvation Front, the leading opposition group, wrote: “The reshuffle does not add anything and does not change much, so the situation will need a new reshuffle in the near future.”
He added: “The challenges are big and the new reshuffle seems that it won’t be able to handle the situation.”
Of the new appointees, Darag has been in the public spotlight before. A fluent English speaker who earned his Ph.D. in social mechanics and foundations at Purdue University, Darag has been the public face of the Morsi government, meeting frequently with reporters and other opinion makers, convincingly presenting the Morsi government as made up of moderates, not ideologues.
At a breakfast panel last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Darag described Egypt’s transitional period as “typical” and promised a more mature government after October’s scheduled parliamentary elections.
He cited anecdotes that portrayed Morsi’s government as having improved the economy, and he shrugged off a question about Egypt’s bleak economic and political situation.
Instead, he gave a lengthy explanation for how Egypt now is producing more of its own wheat. When another panelist noted that more Egyptians are hungry today than two years ago, Darag pleaded with him in Arabic slang: “Come on, my uncle, be optimistic.”
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report from Cairo.