A Humble Prime Minister

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil gestures as he gives a press conference on August 08, 2012 in Cairo

Not much is known about the current Prime Minister of Egypt, Dr Hisham Qandil, except for general details about his education and career as a water and irrigation engineer. He is said to be married with five daughters and—in a conspicuous sign of humility—he refuses to ride in the luxury car that is put at his disposal as head of cabinet. Qandil’s appointment by the first democratically elected president of Egypt on 24 July 2012, therefore, was quite surprising considering his low public profile.

Born in 1962, Qandil is the youngest prime minister since Gamal Abdul Nasser. He graduated from the University of Cairo in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and like many of his contemporaries headed to the US, where he obtained a master’s degree in irrigation and drainage from Utah State University. He later obtained a doctorate from North Carolina State University in 1993 in the same discipline.

After he returned to Egypt, Qandil worked at the ministry of water resources and the National Water Research Center (NWRC). He later worked as the office director for the minister of water resources until 2005.

Qandil then moved to Tunisia to work for the African Development Bank (AfDB) and was promoted to chief water resources engineer. During the time that he was employed at the bank, Qandil worked on the Nile Basin Initiative, which aimed to attain sustainable development through the fair allocation of water resources.

He was appointed minister of water resources in the government of Essam Sharaf in July 2011—appropriate given his great expertise in the field. Despite the fact that Sharaf was forced to resign five months later, Qandil continued as minister in the cabinet of his successor Kamal Ganzouri.

What was unexpected, however, was the fact that he was asked to form a new government by President Morsi. According to Morsi, Qandil was the perfect choice for the post because of his patriotism, independence from party affiliation and his competence. Many Egyptians, however, believe that neither his background nor his political moves indicate any of the above. To the “man in the street,” Qandil is an unknown quantity, appointed by an unproven president.

Although Qandil is not a member of the Brotherhood and is politically independent, his ideology is believed to be similar to that of Morsi’s. The fact that he sports a beard has been viewed by some commentators as an indication of his identification with the Islamist current in Egyptian politics. Qandil, on the other hand, once said that he had grown his beard as an act of religious devotion "in line with the Sunnah"—the Prophet Muhammad's words and actions. In this sense, if Morsi’s choice of such an obscure figure was an attempt to pre-empt speculation about his cabinet’s religious orientation, it has been a failure.

In terms of his political moves so far, Qandil’s choice of cabinet has been the subject of criticism. The distinct lack of female and Coptic Christian ministers is worrying—there are only two female minsters, Nagwa Khalil and Nadia Zachary. Zachary is the only Coptic Christian in the cabinet of a country where Copts are estimated to make up ten per cent of the general population. This does not bode well for a country which toppled a dictator in order to achieve liberty and equality for all sections of society.

The fact that Field Marshal Tantawi remains defense minister in the new government indicates an ongoing struggle behind the scenes over Egypt’s future. As a prime minister appointed by a president who needs to establish himself as a source of authority independent of the military, it remains to be seen if Qandil will have any say in what happens in Egypt, and what his role will be in the struggle. "This is a very weak president and very weak prime minister; it's very hard to see Egypt stabilizing under these two men," one Cairo-based European diplomat told Al-Ahram newspaper.

In an age where Egypt faces political and economic crises such as the struggle to restore domestic security after the events in Sinai, and ease congestion in Greater Cairo which causes losses of $2.5 billion every year, it is difficult to see if Qandil’s career as a water engineer, or indeed those of his cabinet’s as technocrats, will help achieve Morsi’s ‘100 day plan’ that aims to end traffic congestion, a lack of public sanitation, and shortages of staple foods like bread. Morsi appears to have gambled his reputation, and that of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, on proving that they are a ‘normal’ political party capable of solving Egypt’s everyday problems. It is a very tall order, and it remains to be seen if Qandil can help Morsi meet it.

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