CAIRO – Egypt's interim president chose the outgoing housing minister, a construction magnate from the era of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, as his new prime minister on Tuesday, some two months ahead of key presidential elections.
The switch from veteran economist Hazem el-Beblawi to Ibrahim Mehlib, who successfully led Egypt's biggest construction company for a decade, appeared orchestrated to give Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the country's military chief, a window for a quieter street after a spike in labor strikes with the potential of triggering wider unrest.
El-Sissi overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July and backed el-Beblawi's government through tumultuous times, including a heavy crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, and a nationwide referendum that adopted a new constitution while Islamic militant insurgency and terror attacks surged.
With his presidential bid almost certain, el-Sissi must leave the military to run for president. However, a senior government official said the 59-year-old soldier will retain his defense minister's post in the next Cabinet. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press.
"There is a need for a fresh face to deal with the strikes," said Mohammed Aboul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, from which el-Beblawi hails. "El-Beblawi was supposed to stay for two more months but the strikes propelled a speed-up in pushing through the changes."
A change of government before the presidential vote would also spare el-Sissi the disruption associated with forming a new one if he becomes president, a near certainty given his sweeping popularity and the relative weakness of his rivals -- likely a leftist politician and a retired general.
The surprise resignation of el-Beblawi's Cabinet and its swift replacement also reflects that the country' economic woes are enough to daunt anyone who fills the land's highest office.
However since Mubarak's ouster in a 2011 uprising, persistent turmoil has sapped investment and tourism, draining the country of its main sources of foreign currency. The military's removal of Morsi and the subsequent street violence have deepened the country's economic woes.
While the anti-Islamist oil-rich Gulf countries have poured in billions of dollars in grants and loans to keep the country's economy afloat, tens of thousands of textile workers, doctors, pharmacists and even policemen have gone on strike in recent days. Schools and universities had their mid-year break extended by a month because of concerns over the security situation and the spread of swine flu.
Minutes after news broke that he had been chosen prime minister, Mehlib told reporters his cabinet members will be "holy warriors" in the service of Egyptians. He said that his top priority is to improve living standards, combat terrorism and restore security. This, he said, would pave the way for presidential elections.
"God willing, the presidential elections will pass and will take place in proper conditions of safety, security, transparency," he said, adding, "the priority is to work day and night ... anyone in the cabinet will be a holy warrior to achieve the goals of the people."
When asked about the strikes, Mehlib said that excessive labor demands can "topple the state."
Labor official and activist Kamal Abbas saw a positive sign in the resignation of el-Beblawi's government "in response to the strikes," but added that workers will wait and see what the new one will bring.
"This is an example of failed response to the strikes. Instead of sending the buses, why don't you talk to the workers and when negotiations fail, talk again until we reach a solution," said Abbas.
The military, meanwhile, sought to head off a backlash over the strike by public transport workers, sending its own buses to ferry passengers across the capital. "This is to lighten the suffering of citizens and the harm caused by the strikes," said a statement posted on the Facebook page of military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali.
Mehlib, the prime minister-designate, has a reputation for being a hard worker and a successful chief executive of several large companies. Born in 1949, he is a graduate of Cairo University's school of engineering. He rose through the ranks of the construction conglomerate Arab Contractors to become its chief executive for 11 years before resigning in 2012. He worked in Saudi Arabia for one year before he returned to become housing minister under el-Beblawi.
Mubarak appointed him to the upper house of parliament, a toothless consultative body called the Shura Council, in 2010. He was also a senior member of Mubarak's now-dissolved National Democratic Party.
In a separate development, courts on Tuesday sentenced 220 mostly Morsi supporters to up to seven years imprisonment for instigating violence and holding protests without a permit. Three courts in the port city of Alexandria issued the verdicts in separate cases, all related to street protests.