Egyptian PM 'scored zero' in first test as head of state

Ahmed Nazif faces criticism over his perceived absence from the country's public life as he fills in for President Hosni Mubarak, who is in Germany recovering from surgery.

CAIRO // Egypt's prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, is facing growing criticism over his perceived absence from the country's public life as he fills in for President Hosni Mubarak, who is in Germany recovering from surgery. Mr Nazif's low profile has led many to ask who actually makes the decisions in Egypt apart from the president, amid speculation as to the future of the presidency ahead of elections next year.

The prime minister was blasted in the press for not saying more upon the death of the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, on March 10. As per tradition, the head of state was expected to have declared three days of mourning, but Mr Nazif did not. "In the first week of his presidency, Nazif has scored zero in the test of the death of the Sheikh Al Azhar," the opposition daily Al Dostour said in an editorial.

Wael Qandil, a columnist at the independent daily Al Shorouk, said there was a general state of confusion in Egypt as to who is in charge. "The political scene these days looks like the Tower of Babel, with everyone talking about what concerns them and what doesn't," he wrote. A spokesman for Mr Nazif denied that there were any problems and rejected claims that the leadership was chaotic in the absence of Mr Mubarak, Egypt's leader since 1981.

"It's business as usual in the country, things are going smoothly, no problems and no presidential decisions or decrees have had to be made so far," said Magdy Rady. "The prime minister's schedule hasn't changed." Mr Rady said the date of the president's return would be announced in the near future. Mr Nazif is expected to represent Egypt in the Arab League summit in Libya at the end of the month.

The technocrat with a liberal economic agenda was appointed to office by Mr Mubarak in 2004. The president, unlike his two predecessors, did not appoint a vice president and announced the delegation of his powers to Mr Nazif on the eve of his operation. According to a constitutional amendment in 2007, the powers of the president are transferred to the prime minister in his absence, with the exception of the powers to dissolve the government and the two chambers of parliament.

Mr Mubarak, 81, had his gallbladder removed in Germany on March 6 where he fell ill on a state visit. He has since been recovering at the University of Heidelberg hospital, where the surgery was performed. After rife speculation in the media over the president's health and recovery, Egyptians got a silent glimpse of their leader, along with his two doctors, in footage broadcast on Egyptian TV on Tuesday.

It is not clear when Mr Mubarak, who is accompanied by his wife Suzanne and their two sons, will return to Egypt. "The footage shown of President Mubarak came as part of our policy of transparency in dealing with the [health] issue," Abdel Latif el Manawy, head of news at the state-owned Egyptian TV said yesterday. A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president would return "sooner than people think".

But the media voiced doubts. "Why was the president shown with his doctors only? Why was there was no sound? Will there be a TV interview aired soon? Why has no date been set for his return?" read the headline of the opposition daily Al Dostour yesterday. Meanwhile, speculation has continued over the future of the presidency. The return of Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN's nuclear monitoring agency, has given hope to many among Egypt's opposition that there may be a serious contender in the presidential elections next year.

Mr ElBaradei, 67, who received a hero's welcome when he arrived in Cairo airport from Vienna last month and who has already formed the National Front for Change, a coalition of opposition groups, said he would be interested in running for president, as an independent candidate. According to the constitution, however, that is forbidden leading to opposition calls for it to be amended. Safwat el Sherif, secretary general of Mr Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, recently ruled this out.

Mr Mubarak has not said if he intends to run next year. Many believe the president intends to pass power down to his son, Gamal, 46. But amid an increasingly loud opposition, emboldened by a freer press and Mr ElBaradei's return, such a move may prove risky. Mahmoud Saad, Egypt's most renowned TV anchor, speaking on the prime-time talk show Egypt Today, called on the president to amend the constitution to allow more candidates to run and to limit terms to four years with one person only allowed to serve two terms.

"This is just, right and fair," he said.