Dispatch

Rearranging The Deck Chairs in Cairo

Egypt's entire cabinet just resigned. Will it make any difference?

CAIRO — No one expected it. Even some government ministers were not informed. But just a few weeks before Egypt is due to hold fresh presidential elections, embattled Egyptian Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi threw in the towel and announced the resignation of the entire military-installed cabinet. 

"I only knew about it when [Beblawi] started speaking," Higher Education Minister Hossam Eissa said in an interview.

Government spokesperson Badr Abdel-Atty was just confused. Asked about the move during a tour of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said foreign ministry staff had "no idea" why the government quit.

Seven months after Egypt's top generals overthrew President Mohamed Morsi, Monday's dramatic decision means the country is once again a rudderless ship. And as the country prepares for presidential elections, in which army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely rumored to be preparing his candidacy, nobody can truly say where the country is heading.

Critics accuse the government, with Beblawi at its helm, of returning to the practices of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where dissent was met with repression. Online monitoring site Wiki Thawra estimates that more than 21,000 people have been arrested since July, and over 1,000 more have been killed. Meanwhile, restrictions on freedom of the press have seen both local and international journalists jailed .

Beblawi, who has come under fire for failing to tackle Egypt's crippling economic and security crises, offered no explanation for the government's resignation in his televised address to the nation. Instead, he insisted that his team had done all that it could since since being appointed last summer.

"[L]ike any endeavour, [the government's performance] cannot all be success but rather within the boundaries of what is humanly possible," he said.

The decision was made during a 30-minute weekly government meeting, which Sisi, who also serves as defense minister, reportedly attended. The meeting reportedly ended abruptly after the Cabinet took the decision to resign, according to Egyptian press reports.

The country has been on tenterhooks, waiting to see whether the popular army chief announces his long-expected bid for the presidency. Sisi has secured the permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to run and is reportedly setting up his presidential program and team of advisers. However, he must quit his role in the cabinet first -- fuelling speculation the government's resignation could pave the way for the 59-year-old field marshal to declare his candidacy.

But it is far from clear that the government's resignation was coordinated with Sisi. A government source pointed out to Foreign Policy that only Sisi needs to quit in the event of his presidential bid, not the entire cabinet, and suggested that it was the unpopularity of the Beblawi administration that sparked Monday's resignations. 

"The general feeling is that they are slow in their response to the needs of the public," the official said. "They tried, but it didn't work out in the end of the day." 

In the last few weeks, Beblawi's crumbling empire has faced a tidal wave of strikes by furious public sector workers demanding better wages and working conditions. Low-ranking police officers, doctors, pharmacists, garbage men and textile workers are all picketing: In the last few days, the greater Cairo area was brought to a standstill after all 28 bus garages went on strike, the largest such industrial action in the capital's recent history. Meanwhile, workers at Egypt's largest public textile company have been on strike since Feb. 10.

Newspapers, meanwhile, have been full of stories about an acute shortage of cooking gas. Electricity blackouts, usually expected in the summer when energy consumption is higher, have become a routine part of daily life in Egypt due to a chronic shortage of fuel. Security conditions have deteriorated alongside the economy: A string of terror attacks have rocked the country, as Sinai-based jihadist groups escalate a low-level insurgency against government security forces.

Ministers in the former government said the problems were so immense that they had long wanted out.

"We were under terrible pressure," said Eissa, who claimed he begged to be reshuffled out of the cabinet.

Beblawi himself tried to resign after the new constitution was ratified on Jan. 18, Eissa said, but interim president Adly Mansour told him to hang on.

"[Beblawi] was fed up a long time ago," Eissa said. "He was under terrible pressure from his family to leave his post, they couldn't take the insults from the public."

Despite the government's persistent difficulties, the resignation of the entire cabinet will only increase Egypt's difficulties in winning the kind of foreign investment needed to bolster its beleaguered economy.

"When so many senior members of government and the state were not aware of the wholesale resignation, that doesn't send a very inspiring message about cooperation and coordination within government," said H.A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, adding that the move will only compound the country's myriad problems as it prepares for elections.

Many ministers, meanwhile, may not be going anywhere. Mansour, the Egyptian president, has requested that Beblawi stay in his role until a new prime minister is appointed -- which local media reported would be Housing Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, a former member of Mubarak's now defunct National Democratic Party. The more things change in Egypt, the more -- for better or for worse -- they stay the same.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Today There Is Mourning

A photographer returns to Maidan and finds mourners where protesters once stood.

KIEV, Ukraine — On the morning of Feb. 22, I set up my makeshift portrait studio by the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street for the first time since the horrific violence that gripped Maidan, the city's Independence Square, last week.

Before my fixer Emine Ziyatdinova and I got to the spot that we had scouted out the night before, we met Oleg, a 39-year-old fighter from Zhytomyr. I had photographed him a few weeks ago, when I was last in Kiev and before "bloody Thursday." At first we didn't recognize him with fresh clothes and a clean-shaven face, but Oleg hugged and kissed us both tenderly, lingering in each embrace. He had a black eye, the only visible trace of a beating by police on Feb. 18 that left him hospitalized for two days. This meant that he had missed the battles on Thursday, Feb. 20, when 100 protesters were reportedly killed and nearly 600 others injured, which he lamented.

Like so many men we have met since the violence of last week, Oleg looked as though he had just stepped out of the battle: wild eyed and stunned, trying to comprehend what has happened here. Still, he insisted on carrying some of our equipment across the square, helping us set up the backdrop. A few other protesters gathered around to help erect the large metal frame and hoist the black muslin into place. The first portrait I made was of Oleg, and then one after another I photographed the battered, blackened, and exhausted young men who made up the Maidan self-defense force. Many were still visibly traumatized; some of their hands were still trembling. The question, "Were you here?" prompted bowed heads and at times even stifled sobs.  

So much has changed since the last time I set up this makeshift portrait studio in the square. The barricades here saw heavy fighting and were destroyed in a police attack on Feb. 18, only to be taken back and rebuilt two days later. The buoyant and defiant atmosphere is gone. The young men who stood in front of my camera have lost their youthful swagger, their cheeky winks, their puffed chests and jokes. They have been replaced by hollow stares and heavy shoulders.

Hrushevskoho Street remains much the same, blacker from the recent fighting, but the cleanup has begun and the smell of burning tires is fading. Now, only a few fighters guard the barricade, which is no longer sealed and leads past the old front line where the lines of riot police stood, up the hill, and to the Ukrainian parliament, which is now under the control of protesters.

On Feb. 23, I went back again, and this time I took pictures of the streams of women coming to Independence Square, which was full of people carrying flowers to honor the dead -- Zoya, Galina, Oksana, and Olga from Kiev, Alla from Dnipropetrovsk, and Katerina from Donetsk. They arrived with bunches of roses, carnations, and tulips in their arms, which they then gently placed on the barricades, adding to the huge piles of flowers that had been amassing since Saturday evening.

Most of these women cried as they stood in my studio. Zoya, 38, (seen above), choked back tears as she spoke about the violence over the last few days "It's really hard to talk about what happened here. It's so sad that people were killed during peacetime, especially that 17-year-old boy. I want my son, who is also 17, to live in an honest and fair Ukraine."

In the short time I have worked here, I have felt Maidan filled with frustration, boredom, at times anger or terror and fear, sometimes jubilation, but today there is mourning.  

"This is the first quiet day for Kiev's residents to come here. So we came to put flowers and pay respect to the people who died." —Olga, 26 years old, from Kiev 

"I came here for our freedom. I want to live in a normal, free state. There has been enough corruption here." —Yulia, 29 years old, from Kiev

Natasha from Kiev.

Galina, 58 years old, from Kiev.

"I want the bloodshed to stop. I came here to pray for those who were tragically killed, to pay respect with flowers. Our hearts and souls are with them, with those young boys, those sons who were killed here. We have been watching TV 24/7 when they were being shot, and we wanted to pay respects to them in some way." —Larissa, 60 years old, from Kiev

Anastasia Taylor-Lind is a photojournalist currently working on a project about Europe's declining populations.

All photos by Anastasia Taylor-Lind