Egypt’s new PM-designate: some light at the end of the tunnel?

This latest “transitional” cabinet may prove by performance to be more than transitional

Abdallah Schleifer
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Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the future of Egypt was the way media and political thinkers have reacted to the appointment of Ibrahim Mahlab - a former member of former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party - as Egypt’s new Prime Minister.

What is surpising is that relatively few voices have been carrying on about that particular item on the new prime minister’s impressive CV.


In a large measure that is because Mahleb’s party membership - and his serving on its policies committee - is the least significant aspect of his CV. Mahleb is so obviously what is called these days “a technocrat,” not a professional politician. To be more precise - it would be obvious to anyone who reads that CV that Mahleb is a man who gets things done and done well.

From the time Mahlab graduated Cairo University as a civil engineer in 1972, he worked for the Arab Contractors Co., one of the largest construction companies in the Arab world; the first in the field supervising the construction of power plants, tunnel and, bridges. By 1985, he was serving as the technical manager of the Arab Contractors operation in Saudi Arabia and served since 2001 as CEO and then chairman of the board of Arab Contractors.

One senses this is a man who sought neither party nor party position, nor needed a party position for prestige, but brought the prestige of legitimate technical and managerial accomplishment, rather than political ambition, to the-then ruling party and the state.


I find all this very exhilarating. One looks at Iraq where the first months of the U.S. occupation policy of radical de-Baathification as well as the dissolution of the entire Iraqi Army (which Saddam Hussein never trusted) was directly responsible for the Sunni insurgency that opened the way for an al-Qaeda presence, where none had existed before. All of this would ultimately lead to a highly sectarian regime in Baghdad, which is allied, however much Washington may wish to ignore it, with Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

This latest “transitional” cabinet may prove by performance to be more than transitional

Abdallah Schleifer

The nature of professional life in a one-party state, that in one form or another, and one name or another, and one ideological tendency after another, ruled Egypt for some 60 years is that party membership, for whoever would serve, in a non-ideological sense, their country – be it as school teacher or engineer – had little ideological significance party membership except on the highest levels of state.

When Mahlab was recruited as minister of housing in the Beblawi-led cabinet formed in the summer of 2013 after the overthrow of former President Mohammad Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, eyebrows were raised; very few have been raised this time around. That suggests that the politically concerned are moving beyond rhetoric and the addiction of acting-out, to the acknowledgement of Egypt’s desperate need for energetic and constructive leadership.


I am also very impressed precisely because the new Prime Minister’s career trajectory has been shaped for 40 years within the Arab Contractors: probably the most successful, competitive (in the way that a well-run state-owned natural monopoly like the Suez Canal Authority is not) public sector company in Egypt or for that matter, the Arab world.

In part that is because Arab Contractors started from the most humble circumstances imaginable as a privately owned engineering and contracting firm by Osman Ahmed Osman that struggled in the pre-revolutionary years for a footing in a field then dominated by foreign firms, and went on to flourish undertaking multi-million dollar projects in the Arab Gulf, Libya and Iraq.

Osman returned to Egypt in time to secure the contract to build the Aswan Dam. By 1960 Abdul Nasser had adopted the socialist option and in 1961 he nationalized Arab Contractors. At that moment one of the most striking aspects to the Arab Contractors success story occurred - first, that Osman, who could easily have washed his hands of the Egyptian side of his operation since Arab Contractors at this point was the leading engineering and contracting company in the entire Arab world - but instead chose to stay on, saying he it was his duty to both his country and to his employees.

And then, Abdul Nasser had the rare wisdom not only to welcome that decision but to allow the Arab Contractors to continue its unstatelike bureaucratic management policies of a wage-incentive program based on performance, as well as the freedom to function as a private venture in its contracting work outside of Egypt.

Unique ethic

The Arab Contractors has sustained a unique corporate ethic which I cannot but believe that Mahleb had to have absorbed over the many years of his work and eventual leadership there. And that is the corporate tradition established by Osman Ahmed Osman (who passed away in 1999) of extraordinary concern for the welfare of its workers - establishing a pension fund and medical insurance for employees before the socialist state got around to doing for the rest of its swelling number of public sector employees .

Certainly the increasing impoverishment of the Egyptian working classes and the devastation of public institutions - be it government hospitals or the public school system - over the past few decades, followed by the lack of both stability and resolution that has characterized the Egyptian state and society since February 2011, requires a government animated by a sense of social consciousness.

In his first remarks to the press upon taking on the appointment as prime minister, Mahleb said that the government must respond to the recent wave of public sector strikes (that continue to gather momentum) by talking with the workers, which just might appear to mean acknowledging that the government has failed to keep its word that it would implement the minimum wage increase.

That possibility coupled with the obvious energy that Mahleb brings to bear - he has nearly formed his complete cabinet in just two days in office, and has consolidated several related ministries, thereby making the new cabinet less unwieldy - suggests that this latest “transitional” cabinet may prove by performance to be more than transitional.

Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya’s Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary “Control Room” and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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