The abrupt resignation of Egypt’s caretaker government on Monday took many observers by surprise with the vague rationale furnished by now-former interim Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi doing little to elucidate the official thinking around the unexpected move. The military-backed interim government’s decision to resign en masse is now being seen as a precursor to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency (a now foregone conclusion in Egyptian politics). And, indeed, the move does appear to open the way for him to pursue the seat — and to do so while maintaining his characteristic circumspect political style.
In order to officially pursue the presidency, Sisi would have had to resign his interim post as Defense Minister. With the very notable exception of Sisi’s now infamous July 2013 speech that effectively ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power, splashy political statements revealing the army chief’s intentions have never been his style. Even with his candidacy a foregone conclusion, resigning his post in the government was likely a distasteful option for the leader as it would have drawn attention to his own agenda.
If one thing has been clear about the army chief, it’s that he has taken great pains to deflect attention off of his individual pursuit of the presidency, preferring to stay out of the fray publicly while allowing others to vocally make the case for him. Which does help to explain the whole-sale resignation of the government: without any intervention of his own, Sisi is now in the clear to contest the seat— while also being spared the possibility of tipping his hand before the crucial moment.
However, somewhat perversely, Sisi is likely also capitalizing on this widespread perception of his political style to obscure a slightly more tricky bit of maneuvering by his military government. There are reports that Housing Minister Ibrahim Mahlab is on his way to being appointed Prime Minister in the place of Beblawi in a replacement interim government. Mahlab, a prominent member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, was one of 44 Shura Council members directly appointed by Mubarak during the controversial 2010 parliamentary elections — one of the key factors leading to the 2011 uprising.
The elevation of the Mubarak ally to the Prime Minister’s seat may not appear to be the wisest move — though it is likely one the military government feels they can get away with given the much greater attention that is paid to the question of the presidency. Even with his polarizing background, the technocrat is unlikely to inspire mass protests— yet, anyway.
The military leadership is no doubt aware that the seeds of future protest movements are already being planted beyond the banned (and politically neutralized) Muslim Brotherhood. The interim government had already begun to act in anticipation of this threat by postponing the beginning of the new school semester until March 8 and, on Monday, overturning a 2010 ban on police officers entering university campuses in preparation of mounting student protests. While elevating a Mubarak-allied Housing Minister might not seem like the most threatening gesture by the government, the symbolism of the move (along with the minister’s allegedly robust ties to the military) sends a strong message about the military leadership’s planned tactics here.