CAIRO – Divisions opened Saturday in the mixed coalition of Egyptian activists and politicians who banded together against their country’s Islamist government last week, with a dispute over who will become the interim prime minister revealing sharp disagreements about the proper scope of religion in the country’s politics.
Egyptian state media reported — and later rolled back the announcement — that Mohamed ElBaradei, a former chief of the U.N. nuclear agency, had been appointed interim prime minister. The reversal came after Islamists who joined in the coalition against ousted President Mohammed Morsi threatened to withdraw their support if ElBaradei was installed.
“Indications are directed at a certain name, but talks are still ongoing,” said Ahmed el-Muslimany, a spokesman for interim President Adly Mansour, speaking late Saturday at a news conference that had been billed as an announcement of a new prime minister.
The unusual back-and-forth suggested that ElBaradei — a divisive figure in Egypt who is seen as a staunch secularist by groups who want a greater role for religion in politics — may have proved too controversial a choice as prime minister. A top aide to ElBaradei had also portrayed the appointment as a done deal on Saturday. But as reports of ElBaradei’s selection filtered out, leaders of the ultraconservative Salafist el-Nour party threatened to withdraw from the broad coalition of groups backing a path toward elections.
“The nomination of ElBaradei violates the road map that the political and national powers had agreed on with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi,” Ahmed Khalil, the el-Nour party’s deputy leader, told the state-run al-Ahram newspaper.
Many Islamists view ElBaradei as a leader who is not interested in giving them a say in the country’s affairs.
“ElBaradei in a way is kind of the ultimate liberal,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “He has a very antagonistic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is why it doesn’t bode well for Brotherhood reintegration” if he were to come to power.
Just as the democratically elected Morsi experienced a remarkable fall from grace last week, ElBaradei’s unelected rise to the position of prime minister would have marked a remarkable turnaround for a politician who has struggled to find popular support outside Egypt’s urban, educated classes, in a country where roughly half the population lives on less than $2 a day.
Before the announcement of ElBaradei was reversed, state television broadcast images of him meeting with Mansour at the presidential palace. It was the first time Mansour had worked from the palace since he took office Thursday, hours after Wednesday evening’s coup. Mansour also met with representatives from the el-Nour party and from the Tamarod protest group that organized the protests last week that brought millions of people into the streets against Morsi’s rule. Even before Egypt’s 2011 revolution, ElBaradei — the 2005 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize — had been a harsh critic of former President Hosni Mubarak, who led the country for three decades. But his long career outside Egypt, first as a Foreign Ministry diplomat and then at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, led critics in Egypt to say he was more recognizable abroad than at home. He was director general of the nuclear watchdog from 1997 until 2009. Upon returning to Egypt, he spoke out against Mubarak and worked with others, including the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood, to campaign against the leader.
That alliance withered after the 2011 revolution. On Thursday, ElBaradei told CNN he believed Egypt needs a more inclusive government than the one that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had created during their 368 days in power. He said Egypt had risked a “civil war” before the military stepped in to push Morsi out of office.
Although ElBaradei said he wanted a role for members of the Brotherhood as well as ultraconservative Salafist Muslim political groups, he has also defended the shutdown of Islamist television networks that has deprived Morsi supporters of a platform to broadcast their views domestically in the days since the coup.
Mansour’s administration, meanwhile, has begun trying to dismantle Morsi’s legacy. He replaced Morsi’s intelligence chief and the presidential palace’s chief of staff. Prosecutors, meanwhile, ordered four detained stalwarts of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood held for 15 days pending an investigation into the shooting deaths of eight protesters recently.
Also Saturday, a Coptic Christian priest was shot dead in broad daylight in the restive Sinai Peninsula. Attackers on motorbikes shot the priest, Mena Aboud, in his car in el-Arish, near the border with the Gaza Strip, a local police commander said.
South of el-Arish, officials said suspected Islamic militants bombed a pipeline carrying natural gas to Jordan. It was the first attack on Egypt’s natural gas pipelines in Sinai in more than a year.