CAIRO (AP) — President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reshuffled his government on Wednesday Mar. 23 , naming nine new ministers, including for the finance and investment portfolios, but leaving the key ministries of defense, foreign affairs and interior untouched.
The reshuffle comes at a time when Egypt under el-Sissi is facing a host of daunting problems, primarily an economy reeling from five years of unrest that has led to a severe slump in the vital tourism sector. The government recently devalued the country’s currency, sparking a surge in prices, all while Egyptian security forces are bogged down in a draining fight against Islamic militants.
The changes also mirror the urgency with which the general-turned-president seeks to revive the economy and restore investors’ confidence, a task made more difficult by growing international criticism of Egypt’s human rights record.
El-Sissi’s time in office has been partially defined by the killing of hundreds of Islamists in street clashes and the imprisonment of thousands of supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the freely elected president he ousted in July 2103 following mass protests against his divisive, one-year rule.
The case of an Italian doctoral student who disappeared in Cairo in January and whose body was found nine days later bearing signs of brutal torture has further hurt Egypt’s image over human rights.
El-Sissi, however, made it clear while addressing a group of authors on Tuesday that no one should expect a dramatic improvement on human rights and personal freedoms. By keeping in place the interior minister, the president appears to be tacitly endorsing a police force that rights activist say is practicing widespread torture and forced disappearances.
“I am responsible for 90 million people and I am careful to strike a balance between the nation’s security and stability on the one hand and safeguarding rights and freedoms on the other,” he was quoted as saying by the media on Wednesday.
Some of Wednesday’s government changes highlighted the challenges faced by el-Sissi. The nine government ministers replaced included those who had been in charge of finance, investment, water resources, tourism, transport, civil aviation and antiquities.
El-Sissi has since taking office staked his reputation on his high-energy, one-man drive to improve the economy, promising Egyptians a better future while frequently urging them to work harder. He has often complained that too much of the country’s financial resources went to state subsidies on basic items like food and fuel but, fearing widespread unrest, has been extremely cautious when talking about lifting or significantly reducing them.
“Nations are built by sweat and hard work alone,” he said in Tuesday’s meeting with a group of writers and prominent intellectuals.
El-Sissi swore in the 10 new ministers at the presidential al-Ittihadiyah palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, according to state television. The reshuffle is the first since September, when el-Sissi named Sherif Ismail prime minister at the head of a new 33-seat government.
Egyptian authorities rarely share with the public the reasons behind sacking ministers, thus giving rise to intense media speculation. However, Wednesday’s replacements appeared to highlight the troubles faced by Egypt in specific sectors.
Reflecting efforts to revive the country’s ailing economy was the creation of a new business sector portfolio, which will be mandated with encouraging and shepherding small start-ups. The investment and finance ministers were also fired, both replaced by candidates plucked from the private sector.
The replacement of the water minister follows the lack of any tangible progress in drawn-out negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of a massive dam on the Nile that will most likely affect Cairo’s vital share of the river’s water.
A change in leadership at the Ministry of Civil Aviation comes less than five months after a Russian airliner crashed over the Sinai Peninsula shortly after taking off from the Red Sea resort of Sharm, el-Sheikh. Russia said the crash, which killed all 224 people on board, was caused by an explosive device and the Sinai affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group claimed responsibility for downing the plane.
Responding to charges of lax security and negligence at its airports, Egypt has since tightened checks at airports and hired a British-based company to train Egyptian staff on airport security.
The Oct. 31 crash decimated Egypt’s already slumping tourism sector, with Russia suspending all flights to Egypt and Britain halting flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. The tourism and antiquities ministers were also replaced Wednesday.
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