- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Egypt’s interim president on Tuesday appointed a liberal economist and former finance minister as prime minister and former U.N. atomic watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei as vice president for foreign affairs.

Interim President Adly Mansour appointed Hazem el-Biblawi as interim prime minister following protests from the Salafist Nour Party — an ultraconservative Islamist group — over reports that Mr. ElBaradei, whom it considers too secular, was being considered for the job. The Salafists wanted a technocrat for the post, and welcomed the appointment of Mr. el-Biblawi, 76.

The appointments were announced hours after Mr. Mansour issued a constitutional declaration that set a timetable for amending the Islamist-drafted constitution and for elections.

The inclusion in the constitutional declaration of some articles from the suspended 2012 constitution — including those on the freedom of religion and the role of Islamic, or Shariah, law — appear intended to placate the Salafists.

“You can see from the constitutional declaration and from the choices of prime minister and vice president that there is a very keen interest in maintaining the Salafists on board,” said Bassem Sabry, a Cairo-based political commentator. “They need the Salafists to maintain a big national coalition that is multi-ideological so as not to feed what is touted by some as a war against Islam.”

“The Salafists may not be kings, but they seem to be kingmakers now,” Mr. Sabry added.

The Nour Party had sided with the military in last Wednesday’s ouster of Egypt’s first democratically elected president — Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Nour Party’s support is essential for anti-Morsi parties, including the military, to dispel suggestions that his ouster was anti-Islamist.

“The Egyptian military understands very well that the political legitimacy of this transition will be much harder without the Salafists on board,” said Eric Trager, an Egypt analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The military is trying very hard not to make the current transition period about Islamists versus non-Islamists by keeping the Salafists within the fold and that gives the Salafists substantial bargaining power.”

As a result, the constitutional declaration preserved “some of the more odious elements of the same constitution which the Brotherhood pushed to ratification in December,” Mr. Trager said.

On Monday, the Nour Party suspended its participation in the political process after a military crackdown on Morsi supporters in Cairo that left 51 people dead and hundreds wounded. However, it appeared to be back on board on Tuesday.

The Salafists’ presence in the anti-Morsi camp is a “double-edged sword,” said Mr. Sabry. While it helps absorb some of the Islamist anger and gives legitimacy to Mr. Morsi’s ouster, it also risks compromises on what were liberal reasons for the uprising, he said.

Concern over the Salafists’ actions was reflected by Egypt’s defense chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who in a thinly veiled warning to the Nour Party said in a statement on state TV that “the future of the nation is too important and sacred for maneuvers or hindrance, whatever the justifications.”

State Department spokesman Jennifer Psaki said the Obama administration is “encouraged that the interim government had laid out a plan for the path forward in the constitutional decree.”

But the response among Egyptian groups ranged from criticism to disdain.

The National Salvation Front, the largest opposition bloc, rejected the constitutional declaration. It said it had not been consulted prior to the announcement and demanded changes in the decree.

Essam el-Erian, a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader, wrote on his Facebook page that the decree takes Egypt “back to zero.”

“One cannot construct a building without foundation, or a nation without legitimacy and representation,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman.

The Muslim Brotherhood had been banned in Egypt since 1954, but its candidates participated in elections as independents. After longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in February 2011, the Brotherhood said it would not participate in elections, but later reneged on that pledge.

The Tamarod movement, which was behind last week’s protests, expressed concern about the Islamist elements in the decree and said the extraordinary powers given to the president set the stage for a new dictatorship.

“We were surprised by it, just like everyone else,” Mahmoud Badr, a spokesman for the Tamarod movement, wrote on his official Facebook page.

The ultraconservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya said it would not accept the declaration because it was issued by an appointed, rather than an elected, president.

Mr. Mansour, chief justice of the Constitutional Court, was sworn in as interim president last week.

Mr. el-Biblawi served as finance minister in an interim Cabinet that followed Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in pro-democracy Arab Spring protests in February 2011.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, announced that they will provide $8 billion in aid to Egypt.

On Tuesday night, thousands of pro-Morsi supporters held mock funeral processions in Cairo’s Nasr City district. Some gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to protest U.S. support for the Egyptian military.

The U.S. provides $1.3 billion in aid to the Egyptian military. That aid could be cut off under U.S. law if it is determined that Mr. Morsi’s ouster was a military coup. The Obama administration said this week that it would not be in U.S. interests to cut off that aid.

Some lawmakers have called for the aid to be cut off.

That would be a mistake, said Mr. Trager.

“What Washington has to be most attentive to is trying to end the civil strife in Egypt as soon as possible, because if that spirals out of control then it will be even harder to come up with a political formula that will get Egypt on the right path again,” he said.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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