CAIRO — Egypt’s president appointed a new prime minister on Tuesday, asking Hesham Kandil — a U.S.-educated technocrat currently serving as water and irrigation minister — to form a new government.
It took President Mohamed Morsi more than three weeks to make the appointment, and the elevation of Kandil came as a complete surprise.
Kandil, who was born in 1962, will be the first Egyptian prime minister to wear a beard, a clear sign of change in a country where such an outward display of Islamic piety was once outlawed. Morsi, who took office three weeks ago, is Egypt’s first bearded president.
News of the appointment was met with bafflement on the streets of Cairo, where few people recognized their new prime minister’s name, and by disappointment in financial markets, where investors were hoping for an experienced economist who could stave off the threat of a budget and balance-of-payments crisis.
Morsi had promised to appoint someone from outside the Muslim Brotherhood — from which he resigned after the election to form a unity government — but the fact that Kandil is bearded was viewed as a sign of his social and political leanings. In an interview with al-Jazeera last year, Kandil denied being affiliated with any Islamist group but said he had grown his beard out of a sense of religious duty.
At a news conference in the presidential palace after he met with Morsi, Kandil said he would work closely with the president to form a technocratic government in which competence would be the primary criterion for ministerial appointments. But he gave no time frame for forming a cabinet.
“We must retrieve the spirit of the revolution to build Egypt,” Kandil said, adding that his government would work to implement Morsi’s promises for his first 100 days as president. “We are in a difficult stage and have many challenges facing us. There are economic and security problems, and there is pressure on resources, but the core is the president’s program.”
Kandil earned a master’s degree from Utah State University in 1988 and a doctorate in irrigation from North Carolina State University in 1993. He has served as a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources and as chief water resources engineer at the African Development Bank.
Last July, he was appointed to take over the irrigation ministry in a government controlled by Egypt’s military leaders, who effectively ran the country between the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of Morsi.
Activist and lawyer Gamal Eid said he would have preferred a prime minister who was completely untainted by association with the military, but he said the time to judge Kandil would be when he formed his government.
“New faces with acceptance on the street are always better,” he said. “There’s rejection and discomfort toward anyone brought in by Mubarak or the Military Council.”
With the military still wielding immense power in Egypt, it was not clear how much control Kandil would have over the choices to head key ministries, such as defense, foreign affairs and interior. He said Morsi already was consulting with the military over who should become defense minister, a post currently held by armed forces leader Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
A host of more experienced names had been suggested for the premier’s role, but in the end Morsi appeared to observe the Egyptian presidential tradition of appointing a prime minister who was unlikely to threaten or overshadow him, analysts said.
“The president did not want to have a powerful person to be his prime minister,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University and head of the firm Partners in Development for Research, Consulting and Training. “The Muslim Brotherhood do not want someone who would challenge them when it comes to the relationship between religion and politics.”
Sayyid said Kandil’s lack of economic expertise, the fact that he did not have time to establish a track record as irrigation minister and his lack of experience running ministerial committees were all matters of concern and that the prime minister would have to be a quick learner.
Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, called the prime minister a “patriotic, independent figure” who was “capable of managing the current situation efficiently and effectively.” He said all the political forces in the country would be represented in the new government.
Kandil accompanied Morsi to an African Union summit in Addis Ababa earlier this month. But Yasser Hassan, a senior member of the liberal Wafd Party, said he was “confused” by Morsi’s choice of a water engineer rather than an economist.
“Our problem is an economic one, not water,” he said. “I believe that they tend to select a weak character so that they can control him, especially in selecting the ministers. I think the only advantage is that he’s a young man.”
Kandil succeeds 78-year-old prime minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, who served under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999 and was reappointed to the post by the military council late last year.
Ingy Hassieb and Haitham Tabei contributed to this report.