Cairo - A technocrat with no previous record of political activity, unaffiliated to any political current or faction. Calm and composed. A fan of the principles of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), but not an actual member.
Egypt’s elected president, the MB’s Mohammed Mursi, deemed these qualifications sufficient to name Irrigation Minister Hisham Qandil as his first prime minister. Another contributing factor appears to have been his beard. Qandil will thus be the first person to hold the post in a non-interim capacity since the January 25 revolution.
Everyone was surprised by the overnight elevation of Qandil to the second highest office in Egypt, despite his lack of political experience or expertise in economic or financial management. The 49-year-old, who is set to become country’s youngest ever prime minister, has spent his entire career working on irrigation and water-related issues.
But Mursi and the MB clearly thought it an advantageous choice. Qandil is little-known in Egyptian political circles, and almost completely unknown to the public at large. While nominally independent of the MB, his obvious religiosity is likely to appeal to its constituency and other religious conservatives. But he is no politician, and lacks the clout or capacity – other than in his own field of specialization – to develop and pursue his own detailed policy prescriptions. This could make him a handy front-man for the MB while it pulls the strings from behind the scenes.
There was considerable controversy over Qandil’s initial appointment as minister last year in the government of Issam Sharaf, shortly after his return from Tunisia where he worked as a water resources expert at the African Development Bank (ADB). As the country’s first bearded cabinet minister, it was widely rumored that he was an MB member. In denying the claim, he remarked that he had merely attended study sessions while in Tunisia organized by the Ennahda Movement – the MB’s Tunisian chapter. Many remained skeptical.
Qandil’s stint as Irrigation Minister was also marked by protests and sit-ins by ministry staffers demanding employment rights and action against corrupt officials, which later developed into calls for him to be sacked. In January this year, irrigation workers in Asana in Upper Egypt blocked the passage of cruise boats on the Nile in protest at Qandil’s failure to address their demands.
Qandil’s principal asset is his knowledge of and involvement in the complex and critical controversies over water-sharing between Egypt and other Nile littoral states. Critics say that although he was in charge of this dossier as Irrigation Minister, he achieved no tangible progress over it. But water specialists argued that he should retain the job in the new government – or be given a special portfolio dealing with Nile Basin affairs – because of the long-term importance of the issue to Egypt.
Qandil has impressive credentials in this regard. He qualified as an engineer in 1984, and then earned a master’s degree and doctorate in the US before joining the staff of the Irrigation Ministry. He was granted a presidential award in 1995 for services to irrigation, and was promoted to head of the office of the minister, Mahmoud Abu-Zaid. He was involved in water-sharing talks held under the Nile Basin Initiative, was an observer-member of the Joint Egyptian-Sudanese Water Authority, and helped launch the African Water Council and the ADB’s African Water Facility.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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