Cairo - Egypt's new interim government was sworn in on Saturday, a lightly reshuffled Cabinet with familiar faces that keeps powerful ministers in charge of the country's security and military services in place ahead of an anticipated presidential election.
The new Cabinet, Egypt's sixth government since its 2011 revolt against autocrat Hosni Mubarak, retains Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as defence minister. Many believe the wildly popular el-Sissi, who led the 3 July overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, will run for president.
The change of government before the presidential vote appeared orchestrated to curb rising criticism of the outgoing military-backed Cabinet, which was accused of failing to stem widening labour strikes and continued protests.
The new line-up by new interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlib largely removed Cabinet members belonging to political parties formed after the 2011 revolt, replacing them with technocrats or businessmen.
The new Cabinet also would spare el-Sissi the disruption associated with forming a new government if he becomes president. Parliamentary elections are expected by the summer, after which a new government is likely to be formed.
Presidential spokesperson Ihab Badawi said the priorities of the new Cabinet will be to prepare for the presidential and parliamentary elections, key milestones in the military-backed road map adopted after Morsi's ouster.
The second priority, Badawi said, will be to deal with urgent needs of the public, including ensuring security and providing basic services in the face of worsening power shortages and widening labour strikes.
In state-televised footage from the presidential palace, a total of 31 ministers were sworn in, led by Mehlib, the outgoing housing minister. He is a construction magnate who also held a senior position in the now-dissolved party of Mubarak.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who oversees the country's police, also remains in place despite wide criticism of his performance in handling rising violence and for using heavy-handed tactics against dissent.
20 ministers kept
Mehlib's Cabinet keeps 20 ministers from former Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi's government and appoints 11 new ones. The new Cabinet includes three Christians and four women, but no Islamists.
Among the changes, new Justice Minister Nayer Othman replaced a veteran judge from the Mubarak era who has been accused of corruption.
New Finance Minister Hani Kadry Demian is a senior ministry official who played a key role in Egypt's negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a loan over the last years of turmoil. Demian resigned from his post during Morsi' tenure.
El-Beblawi issued a surprise resignation on Monday. El-Sissi, the military chief, backed el-Beblawi's government through tumultuous times, including a heavy crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and a nationwide referendum that adopted a new constitution while Islamic militant insurgency and terror attacks surged.
‘New, old Cabinet par excellence’
Criticism quickly followed the new Cabinet being sworn. Some saw it as a reproduction of the ineffective outgoing government.
Others said the new Cabinet is a throwback to Mubarak-era governments, studded with technocrats and businessmen.
"We are heading to a new, old Cabinet par excellence" Khaled Dawoud, spokesperson for the liberal Constitution Party, wrote in the daily newspaper Tahrir, blaming the failure of the outgoing government for focusing only security issues.
Ahmed Fawzi, a leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, from which el-Beblawi and his deputy hailed, said the reshuffle removed the politicians who supported the 2011 revolt.
Fawzi said the media has pushed the idea that political parties are not efficient at being part of the government, paving the way for the return of an all-powerful president and relegating political parties to mere spectators in Egypt's politics.
"This will ultimately lead to the death of politics," Fawzi said.
Meanwhile on Saturday, police detained Morsi's youngest son on suspicion of drug possession, the country's official news agency reported, an accusation the family said was fabricated to "smear (their) image."
The MENA news agency said Abdullah Morsi, a 20-year old university freshman, was arrested after a police patrol found a suspicious car parked on the side of the road in el-Obour city, east of Cairo.
Officers found two rolled hashish cigarettes in the car, the agency said. MENA said Abdullah Morsi would be held overnight as he refused to take a drug test.