Egypt's bulldozer and Sisi's oil rig

Egypt's bulldozer and Sisi's oil rig
Comment: Ibrahim Mahlab is leaving office over a corruption scandal in his government - but several developments hint at political motives behind his resignation, argues Mohamed el-Meshad.
5 min read
18 Sep, 2015
PM Mahlab resigned after a corruption scandal rocked one of the ministries [Anadolu]

Say what you will about the guy, but departing Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab once looked tireless.

Pictures of him visiting a different governorate or tackling one issue or another dominated the front pages of the Egyptian press - private and public alike.

"The Bulldozer", as the former building contractor was called, seemed to embody the ethos of militaristic efficiency that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continuously called for.

In light of the personality cult built around Sisi ever since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi in 2013, there was simply no room for any charismatic or popular political figures in the upper echelons of power. 

And since his appointment by interim President Adly Mansour in February 2014, Mahlab fulfilled the role of the loyalist and politically unassuming, technocratic PM.

As he gets ready to permanently step down from office, he cuts the same obedient figure, while the pro-government media unceremoniously bash his exit as they had previously praised his work ethic. Since June 11, when Sisi made an ostensibly tongue-in-cheek televised dressing down of Mahlab, there have been indications that things might go awry for the former housing minister.

     I do my best and give what I can, but the president always wants more effort and sweat
- Ibrahim Mahlab, prime minister

"Where is the bulldozer?" Sisi asked. When asked whether the comment was all in jest in a phone-in on a political talk show, Mahlab responded: "Thank God, I do my best and give what I can, but the president always wants more effort and sweat… it is the president's right to direct us to do more."

Since then, criticism directed at Mahlab and his cabinet has steadily increased until hitting its peak on September 7, when a corruption scandal erupted in which the agriculture minister was indicted.

The media that had adored Mahlab just a few months earlier began calling for his resignation, despite the fact that the agriculture minister had not been appointed by Mahlab, or that the case referred to events before he came to office.

Regardless of Mahlab's actual record in office, the past three months have felt like a gradual set-up to allow for an easy, no-fuss departure. He became the obliging scapegoat for the continuing state of institutionalised corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. Sisi, meanwhile, seemed to escape all such criticism.

Egypt is on the cusp of further seismic changes and the general public needs to be reassured that such changes would be accompanied by changes in leadership.

Just one day after Mahlab's official resignation, the media followed the president's implied call for an amendment of the 2014 constitution with sudden echoes of concern. 

Sisi was complaining that the parliament was given broad powers, including approving the Cabinet. Meanwhile, the country faces a further devaluation of currency, a looming petrol crisis and further inflation - all while hastily preparing for parliamentary elections.

Mahlab was never a stellar performer, however shaking up the cabinet at a time like this seems like a sound tactic for a presidency wishing to deflect criticism and retain public confidence at a time of change.

The incoming prime minister, Sherif Ismail, does not really represent any change. Like Mahlab, Ismail is politically insignificant, and an engineer with strong ties to large public/private projects since the Mubarak era.

Almost immediately after being announced as the new PM, the former petroleum minister had to respond to allegations of corruption. It is unclear why the president felt compelled to appoint Ismail. His record does not stand out in any way. While his inistry does naturally deal with grand projects, he does not fit the "project micromanager" profile of Mahlab.

Speculation is rife as to which ministers will be changed, although "Sovereign Ministers" - ministries of defence, interior, exterior, justice and foreign affairs - will most probably be spared.

Most "service ministries" will reportedly have new ministers, according to Al-Akhbar, Egypt's second largest public newspaper.

Sovereign Ministries are known to generally be closer to the presidency and less subject to changes based on public pressure or criticism. Service Ministries - such as electricity, social solidarity, religious endowments and agriculture - are less politically sensitive.

Given their more direct public interactions, these ministries are more prone to public pressure and less of a liability for the presidency in case of failure or disloyalty.

     Many in the press touted these changes as an example that Sisi is getting tough on corruption

Many in the press touted these changes as an example that Sisi is getting tough on corruption. However, the reality is that both detaining the agriculture minister and sacking Mahlab were easy.

Corruption as an institution in Egypt has permeated every level of the public bureaucracy, and more importantly, it has permeated every ministry - regardless of its political sensitivity.

Perhaps, alongside these changes, Sisi could look to the experience of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who in 2005 fired the entire traffic police and rebuilt it from scratch as a clear statement of intent that his government would fight corruption as an institution, rather than target some figureheads. 

While such a move would be welcome in Egypt, it is unlikly to happen soon, as this Cabinet reshuffle seems more about political manoeuvring.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focused on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book,
Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.