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Ex-Mubarak crony named to form new Egyptian government

In a surprise announcement, Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi announced Monday that his 7-month-old government had resigned just two months ahead of expected presidential elections, a move that seemed destined to clear the way for a new Cabinet led by politicians close to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The departing Cabinet was the fifth government to rule Egypt in three years. The transitional president, Adly Mansour, accepted el-Beblawi’s resignation and named as his successor the housing minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, a former member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party who has business interests in Saudi Arabia and whom Mubarak appointed to the legislature’s upper house, the Shura Council, in 2010.

Under Egyptian law, when the prime minister resigns, the rest of his Cabinet resigns with him. But the announcement appeared to catch some of the ministers by surprise, as several said privately that they’d learned of el-Beblawi’s resignation earlier Monday at an abrupt Cabinet meeting.

A government official told McClatchy that Mahlab would return most ministers to their former posts in the next days but that there might be a shift in the Cabinet’s overall composition. Where el-Beblawi’s Cabinet consisted of those tied to the Mubarak regime as well as newcomers since the 2011 uprising that removed Mubarak from power, Mahlab is expected to stack his Cabinet largely with remnants of the old regime.

Analysts saw Mahlab’s appointment as potentially helping the expected presidential candidacy of Egypt’s strongman, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. El-Sissi was once Egypt’s defense attache in Saudi Arabia, his country’s largest financial benefactor. The appointment of a Cabinet composed of people willing to also work under an el-Sissi administration might lay the groundwork for his election, observers said.

“The rumored prime minister is a former land and housing minister, which means he has dealt with matters central to the military’s domestic financial land assets. He also, like Sissi, has close ties to Saudi Arabia,” said Eric Trager, an expert in Egyptian politics who’s the Esther K. Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, a U.S. research center..

It’s unclear whether el-Sissi, who with el-Beblawi’s resignation lost his post as defense minister, would serve in Mahlab’s government.

El-Beblawi made the announcement during a 15-minute speech on live television in which he called for the Egyptian people to take more personal responsibility for the nation’s development.

“For the past six to seven months, the government assumed its responsibilities and duties. . . . The government did not spare any efforts to get Egypt out of a bad phase,” el-Beblawi said.

An economist, el-Beblawi had grown increasingly unpopular among Egyptian pundits and voters alike as the economy continued to decline. In recent weeks, several labor groups, including bus drivers, went on strike, further straining the economy.

“It is time we all sacrificed for the good of the country. Rather than asking what has Egypt given us, we should instead be asking what we have done for Egypt,” said el-Beblawi, who’s 70, adding that the government had “made every effort to get Egypt out of the narrow tunnel in terms of security, economic pressures and political confusion.”

There had been rampant rumors that the government would resign in January, shortly after Egypt approved a new constitution in a referendum with a resounding 98 percent of the vote.

But the labor strikes seemed to have intensified calls for change – again. El-Beblawi’s government, for some, was more unpopular than the threat of more instability.