The Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers

Egypt Table of Contents

The prime minister is the president's primary lieutenant, charged with implementing his policies through the bureaucracy. Although the prime minister and his cabinet are formally accountable to parliament and are expected to submit to legislative questioning, they were, in practice, appointed and removed by the president, not by parliament. Under Nasser, when key Free Officers headed strategic ministries, the cabinet was a center of some power, but subsequently it became merely the staff of the president. Although the president might preside over cabinet meetings, the cabinet was not a collegial decision-making body; instead, the president tended to make key decisions in ad hoc consultations with ministers and advisers in a given issue area.

Egypt's policy-making process was very much dominated by the executive branch, and the heart of the process was the interaction between the presidency and the Council of Ministers. This top executive level decided on all policy proposals, whether they originated in the bureaucracy, with influential personalities, or with interest groups. It was also the arena in which all major political decisions were made, relatively free from institutionalized constraints or pressure from other parts of the political system or the public. Major policy innovations were typically launched by the president, perhaps under the influence of close personal advisers or the pressure of a major problem or crisis and most likely after consultation with ministerial experts. Particularly when a major policy decision was in the making, the president might encourage opinion groups to develop in the cabinet. These groups would advocate different policy options, but although the policies might seriously affect different segments of society, the opinion groups were not really representatives of those segments. Moreover, the president had the first and the last word in deciding among the groups.

The cabinet itself was, nevertheless, an arena of intraelite politics because presidents, engrossed in major political decisions, often left the day-to-day business of government to their ministers, intervening only to give general instructions or when something went wrong. Such mid-level policy making might be set in motion by the proposals of individual ministries, often generated by high civil servants or even by the interests of persons associated with a particular ministry, such as public sector managers or the various professional syndicates. These proposals might set off factional bargaining within the cabinet and high bureaucracy. Elite factions might take the form of shillas, small groups bound by friendship or family ties, heading client networks that stretched down through the bureaucracy and competed for control of offices and the personal and venal benefits that often went with them.

Typically, there was a split in the cabinet between presidential appointees and the clients the prime minister brought on board. In the late 1970s, the cabinet was reportedly split between followers of Vice President Mubarak and Prime Minister Mustafa Khalil. Sometimes factionalism took the form of bureaucratic rivalries between ministries over programs, resources, and jurisdictions; such bureaucratic struggles decided a good part of "who got what" in a country where the state sector was still at the center of the economy. As societal interests became stronger at the expense of government, policy making came more often to take the form of "trial balloons" in which the government or a faction of ministers tested public reaction to an initiative and often backed down if opposition was too strong. If intraelite conflict could not be settled in the cabinet or if a ministerial initiative invited excessive public reaction, the president was likely to intervene, perhaps dismissing a particular minister or faction.

The cabinet was also empowered to plan, coordinate, and control the work of the ministries in implementing policy, and to follow up, evaluate, and inspect policy implementation. Toward these ends, it was divided into two layers, with an inner cabinet of deputy prime ministers responsible for coordinating several functionally related ministries in the full cabinet that composed the outer layer. The independent Central Auditing Agency was responsible for financial control.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress