CAIRO (AP) — 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.
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