CAIRO — Egypt’s first democratically elected president on Tuesday named a prime minister, picking as his choice to lead the government a 40-something, U.S.-educated engineer who sports a beard and is believed to be an Islamist, though he does not belong to any of the country’s religious political groupings.
Hesham Kandil previously served as minister of irrigation before President Mohammed Morsi elevated him to the new post in the first indication of Morsi’s plans to put his own stamp on Egypt’s government.
Little is known about Kandil’s political beliefs. Yasser Ali, Morsi’s spokesman, told Egyptian state television that the selection came after a search for “an independent, patriotic character.” The fact that Kandil is not a known member of the Muslim Brotherhood will help stanch criticism that Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood member who resigned from the group after he was elected president, would work to cement the Brotherhood’s hold on Egypt’s political system.
At a news conference after his selection, Kandil promised to name a Cabinet of technocrats. He said efficiency and competence, not political or religious beliefs, would be the primary criteria for selecting new government ministers. He pledged there would be no wholesale dismantling of existing government ministries.
“One of our most important tasks is carrying out President Morsi’s first-100-days plan, with its five important causes” – improving traffic flow, cracking down on crime, collecting the trash, providing bread and supplying fuel – Kandil said. “And I will be adding to that the water cause.”
The one area where Kandil will have no authority is defense. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been Egypt’s top executive authority since Hosni Mubarak was forced from the presidency last year, amended the country’s interim constitution to give itself the authority to appoint a defense minister. Still to be seen is whether the military council will allow Morsi and Kandil to select other key national security ministers, including the minister of foreign affairs and the minister of the interior, who oversees the country’s police and internal security forces.
Analysts said that Kandil’s greatest strength may come from his relative youth – biographies in Egyptian newspapers gave his age as 41 – and that his relative anonymity could be a handicap.
“Who is he would be my first question,” said Nora Solimon, a member of Egypt’s liberal Justice Party. “The way it works in America is that once a prime minister is appointed, there is transparency, a process and the people can view the resumes of the newly appointed Cabinet members, and then people could agree or not. But that’s not how it is here.”
Abdurrahman Farris, a political activist and a co-founder of the Egyptian Current Party, expressed similar concerns.
“The only good thing about him is that he is young,” Farris said. He said Kandil had none of the characteristics that politicians had told Morsi they were looking for in a prime minister: “a strong national and political character who is popularly acceptable.” But he said he would wait to see what the final shape of the Cabinet would be.
Morsi had promised that he would not select a member of the Brotherhood as his prime minister, but he and Kandil share at least one characteristic: doctorates in engineering from U.S. universities – Morsi from the University of Southern California and Kandil from the University of North Carolina. Kandil also received a master’s degree from Utah State University.
While Kandil is not a member of a religious political party, the fact that he sports a beard suggests he is pious.
Earlier this month, Morsi traveled to Ethiopia with Kandil for a summit of African Union countries. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen Egyptian relations with countries through which the Nile River flows, a group that Mubarak was often criticized for ignoring. Kandil serves as a senior irrigation engineer at the African Development Bank and worked on the Nile Basin Initiative, a cooperative effort in 1999 to find ways to share Nile River water among the nine nations through which it flows.
Ismail and El Naggar are McClatchy special correspondents.