The tortuous process of setting Egypt on a new political path following the removal of Hosni Mubarak advanced another small step at the start of August with the formation of a government.

The announcement of the new cabinet was greeted with little enthusiasm. The newly elected president, Mohamed Mursi, had deliberated for more than three weeks over who to appoint as his prime minister before settling on Hisham Qandil, an anonymous 50-year-old water expert, who had taken charge of the Irrigation and Water Resources Ministry last July. Qandil is typical of the class of officials that have come to prominence since the revolution.

The first-level technocrats that dominated under Mubarak have either been shunted aside or sentenced to long jail terms on valid or spurious grounds, leaving the second-tier officials as the default options for ministerial office.

Mursi himself falls into this category of second-best or ‘spare tyre’ as some have put it. He was wheeled out as the Muslim Brotherhood candidate after Khairat al-Shater was ruled ineligible because of his time in jail. The Qandil government consists of technocrats with a sprinkling of Muslim Brotherhood members.

Most of the eligible candidates were either veterans or too closely associated with the Mubarak era

The Islamist component is confined to areas such as information, higher education, housing and youth where the Brotherhood can advance its agenda of moral conservatism and social equity, without appearing to be seeking to dominate the higher policy agenda. In deference to the military establishment, Qandil and Mursi have left Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in place as defence minister, but there is no place in the new government for his closest ally from the Mubarak era, Fayza Aboul-Naga, who had survived in successive cabinets since the revolution. She had been in charge of curtailing the operations of non-governmental organisations.

Mursi’s uninspiring choices

Mursi and Qandil have been derided for their uninspiring choices of figures to run the Egyptian government, but their options were limited. It would have been hard for the president to justify forming a more political cabinet, based on the balance of forces in parliament, as the lower house of parliament has been dissolved and the assembly that is drafting a new constitution may find that it has been dissolved before it completes its work.

The president and his prime minister have settled on the lowest common denominator of officials fit to manage Egypt’s affairs during the next phase of what seems to be an endless period of transition.

Mursi was reportedly considering several heavyweight economic experts to take on the role of prime minister, but he faced the political problem that most of the eligible candidates were either veterans or too closely associated with the business elite of the late-Mubarak era. Qandil likewise tried and failed to find an appropriate figure to fill the post of deputy prime minister for economic affairs.

With the departure of Aboul-Naga, the senior economic policy official is Momtaz el-Saeed, a long-serving civil servant in the finance ministry, who became minister in November 2011.

El-Saeed has had the benefit of an able support staff put in place by Youssef Boutros-Ghali, who dominated economic policy for much of the Mubarak period and was the architect of the medium-term fiscal programme that has served as the basis for the budgets of both 2011/12 and 2012/13.

Officials are comfortable negotiating with the Washington-headquartered IMF, but their orthodox positions on fiscal policy are not always well understood by Muslim Brotherhood MPs and are viewed with deep suspicion by the activists who played a key role in the revolution.

An effort to retain some of the business-friendly aspects of the late-Mubarak era is also evident in Qandil’s decision to revive the post of investment minister, accorded to Osama Saleh, the former head of the General Authority for Investment, and in the removal of Gawdat Abdel-Khaleq, a fierce critic of Boutros-Ghali, from the cabinet. His position as supply and internal trade minister has gone to Abu Zaid Mohammed Abu Zaid, a former deputy head of the state-owned food industry holding company. Another former public sector holding company official, Hatem Saleh, has been given the trade and industry portfolio; Aboul-Naga has been replaced by Ashraf al-Araby, a senior civil servant in her former ministry.

Key ministries

In the sectoral ministries, one of Qandil’s innovations has been to create a dedicated ministry for utilities, drinking water and sanitation, separate from his old ministry of irrigation and water resources. This appears to be a sensible step, allowing the latter minister to focus on Nile issues, while the new ministry gives closer attention to municipal water and wastewater needs. In the troubled petroleum ministry, Qandil has turned to Osama Kamal, the head of the petrochemical holding company, to be the new minister.

Hassan Younis has finally been relieved of the post of electricity minister, with Mahmoud Rida Balbaa, the former head of the electricity holding company, being given the task of accounting for periodic blackouts during the high-summer/Ramadan surge in power demand.