CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's interim prime minister announced Monday the resignation of his Cabinet, a surprise move that could be designed in part to pave the way for the nation's military chief to leave his defense minister's post to run for president.
Hazem el-Beblawi's military-backed government was sworn in on July 16, less than two weeks after Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the defense minister, ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi after a year in office. Its ministers will remain in their posts in a caretaker capacity until the president picks a prime minister to form a new Cabinet.
The government's resignation, announced by el-Beblawi in a live TV broadcast, came amid a host of strikes, including one by public transport workers and garbage collectors. An acute shortage of cooking gas has also been making front page news the past few days.
Egypt's political system gives most powers to the president. The prime minister usually handles day-to-day economic management, but does not set key policies. Under deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years until his 2011 ouster, the prime minister was perceived as a scapegoat for government failings.
It was not immediately clear whether el-Beblawi will stay at the helm of a new government or will step aside for a new prime minister. Local media has repeatedly reported that he planned to reshuffle his government but not resign.
He said the Cabinet's decision to resign was made during Monday's weekly government meeting, but he gave no details.
El-Beblawi has often been derided in the media for his perceived indecisiveness and inability to introduce effective remedies for the country's economic woes. He has also been criticized for the security forces' inability to prevent high-profile terror attacks blamed on militants sympathetic with Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
The outgoing prime minister acknowledged the difficult conditions in which his Cabinet functioned, but suggested that Egypt was in a better place now that it was when he first took office. He also pointed out that while members of his Cabinet may not have represented the nation's top talents, they were experts in their fields who accepted Cabinet posts at a very difficult time.
"The Cabinet has, in the last six or seven months, responsibly and dutifully shouldered a very difficult and delicate burden and I believe that, in most cases, we have achieved good results," he said.
"But like any endeavor, it cannot all be success but rather within the boundaries of what is humanly possible," el-Beblawi said. The goal, he added, was to take Egypt out of a "narrow tunnel" brought about by security, political and economic pressures.
Commenting on the flurry of strikes, the outgoing prime minister cautioned Egyptians that this was not the time for making demands. "We must sacrifice our personal and narrow interests for the benefit of the nation."
A presidential bid by the popular el-Sissi has been widely anticipated and leaving him out of the next Cabinet will most likely be accompanied or soon followed by an announcement by the 59-year-old soldier that he is running.
El-Sissi has already secured the support of Egypt's top military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to launch a presidential bid.
Already, the career infantry officer trained in Britain and the United States has been acting in a somewhat presidential manner. He paid a highly publicized visit to Russia earlier this month, when he secured the Kremlin's goodwill, its blessing for his likely presidential bid and negotiated a large arms deal.
Last week, his wife made her first public appearance since Morsi's ouster, seated next to him in a military ceremony.
The resignation followed the adoption last month of a new constitution drafted by a mostly liberal and secular panel and two months ahead of a presidential election, now expected to be held in April. The charter gives the military the exclusive right to pick the defense minister for the next two, four-year presidential terms.
In Egypt, the defense minister is routinely the armed forces' commander in chief, so if el-Sissi is left out of the next Cabinet, then he would leave him in a vacuum unless he announces his presidential candidacy simultaneously as or just before the new government is sworn in.
Newspapers and broadcasters with ties to the military have tipped Chief of Staff Gen. Sedki Subhi to be the next defense minister.
News of the Cabinet's resignation came as authorities kept up the pressure on Morsi's Brotherhood and its allies, announcing the referral to trial of more than 500 supporters of the ousted leader on charges arising from deadly clashes in August.
Thousands of Morsi supporters have been arrested, killed or injured in the ongoing crackdown and the Brotherhood has been labeled a terrorist organization and its assets confiscated.
On Monday, Egypt's chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat referred 504 Brotherhood members and Morsi supporters to the Cairo Criminal Court on charges ranging from murder and violent conduct during clashes on Aug. 16.
The clashes came two days after security forces stormed and razed two pro-Morsi sit-in protest camps in Cairo, killing hundreds and sparking days of deadly unrest.