Egypt names interim prime minister, sets timetable for elections

CAIRO — Seeking to reassure the outside world after a turbulent week of street protests, Egypt's military-backed interim leaders on Tuesday appointed a caretaker prime minister and urged citizens to support a six-month timetable for revising the constitution and holding fresh elections.

The announcement of liberal economist Hazem Beblawi's selection as prime minister ended days of confusion after the first choice for the post was abruptly withdrawn because of opposition from conservative Islamists. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the secular opposition leader who was reportedly the initial pick for the post, was named vice president of foreign affairs, a new position that would make him Egypt's face to the West.

The appointments — and the relatively swift timetable for new elections — laid out the military's road map to restoring democracy. But they came with a stark warning to end the unrest that followed last week's military coup against former President Mohamed Morsi.

The Obama administration said it was "cautiously encouraged" by the timeline, a further signal that it would not cut off $1.5 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt. But a bigger sign of approval came from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which announced a total of $8 billion in economic aid for Egypt.

The Persian Gulf economic giants had eyed the Morsi government warily, worried that the rise of his Muslim Brotherhood would bolster Islamic extremists in their own countries. Saudi Arabia's $5-billion pledge and the UAE's $3 billion would provide Egypt a much-needed economic lifeline, but analysts said the one-time grants also would diminish the United States' already shrinking influence with the new government in Cairo.

The military's moves came as Egyptian prosecutors began interrogating hundreds of people about Monday's bloody altercation outside the Republican Guard headquarters in east Cairo, where soldiers fired on a pro-Brotherhood sit-in, leaving more than 50 Morsi supporters dead.

Brotherhood supporters continued to seethe from the incident, the deadliest in a week of clashes nationwide, and hundreds marched in a symbolic funeral Tuesday carrying empty coffins draped with the Egyptian flag. The army has said it came under attack and opened fire in retaliation.

Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst at the Rand Corp., saw Tuesday's announcements as a sign that the military understood it was at risk of alienating its Western backers. "They realized their position was precarious" after Monday's killings, Martini said. "This is a statement that 'we know we've overreached — we've got to do something to placate the international community.'"

The Brotherhood, as expected, rejected the constitutional road map issued late Monday and denounced the generals as "mutineers" and "dictators" who "do not respect the people." The group has demanded that Morsi be reinstated to office and called for a national uprising to avenge the killings.

But the plan also came under criticism from leftist groups that supported the coup. The youth movement Rebel tweeted that it amounted to a new "dictatorship" and granted too many powers to the interim president, Judge Adly Mahmoud Mansour. Another anti-Morsi group, the April 6 movement, which helped lead the revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, called the road map "a disappointment" because it was issued without outside input.

The army, which initially held power after the fall of Mubarak, was widely seen as having botched the transition to civilian rule. Both Islamists and secular groups accused the generals of holding too much power and making decisions behind closed doors. The civil unrest during and after the transition to civilian rule a year ago damaged the military's reputation and extensive economic interests, and the generals are said to be determined to avoid repeating that scenario.

In a statement read over state television Tuesday, the military issued a stern warning against further violent protests and said that Egypt was on the path toward restoring democracy.

"The road forward is clear, drawn and determined, and gives everyone more than enough reassurance" that the transition will occur "clearly and transparently," the statement said.

The interim prime minister, Beblawi, who is in his 70s, served for several months as finance minister and deputy prime minister in the transitional government that followed the Mubarak government's collapse. He resigned in October 2011 in protest over the killings by security forces of two dozen Coptic Christian protesters.

In recent months, Beblawi had been sharply critical of Morsi's economic leadership, particularly a lack of transparency and failure to stem Egypt's rising budget deficit.

ElBaradei's name was removed from consideration for prime minister over the weekend after the Islamist Nour Party, a key part of the coalition that forced Morsi's removal, said it would withdraw from the transition process if he was confirmed. The former director-general of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency and winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize is popular in Western capitals but reviled by Islamists, who view him as a foreign-backed outsider.

Gehad Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, told Al Jazeera English that the appointments were further evidence of "an anti-revolution enshrined by a military coup."

Essam Erian, vice chairman of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said the road map for revising the constitution "brings the country back to square one." Morsi's opponents had said the current charter, drafted mainly by Islamists, infringed on personal rights and religious freedom.

Within 15 days, interim President Mansour is to appoint a committee of 10 jurists and professors who would have one month to come up with amendments to the constitution. The amended charter would then be reviewed by a committee of representatives from across Egyptian society, which will issue a final document to be put to a national referendum. The plan calls for a presidential election three months after the constitution is ratified, which, in the unlikely event that the plan's deadlines are met, would come at the end of February 2014.

The announcements came on the eve of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, which some hoped would quiet the fervor of pro-Morsi demonstrators.

Ramadan traditionally slows the wheels of Egypt's government and economy as Muslims refrain from eating and drinking during the day and celebrate the evenings with family gatherings and feasts. But some worry it could also inflame tempers because the dawn-to-dusk fasting often makes people more irritable.

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

Hassieb is a special correspondent. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Edmund Sanders in Cairo and special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.