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Egypt's military expands authority as general named new transport minister

Close Sisi ally Kamel el-Wazir is appointed following resignation of predecessor following deadly train crash
Sisi pins new epaulettes on Wazir's uniform on Sunday after promoting him to lieutenant general (Screengrab)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has appointed a senior military general, Kamel el-Wazir, as transport minister following a deadly train crash that killed and wounded dozens in Cairo last month.

The previous minister, Hisham Arafat, who is a civilian, resigned on 27 February after a locomotive rammed into a barrier in Cairo’s main railway station, causing an explosion that killed at least 22 people.

The appointment of Wazir comes in the midst of renewed criticism of Sisi's government over its perceived responsibility for the tragic incident.

Prior to his new appointment, Wazir served as chairman of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, which oversees the construction of new mega-projects launched by Sisi, including the new administrative capital, which is being built some 45km from Cairo.

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Wazir also oversaw the Suez Canal Corridor Area Project, an extension to the waterway that has had little apparent effect on the economy and been labelled a waste of time and money. 

Sisi's critics say he has squandered billions of dollars into mega-projects while neglecting calls for crucial reforms in the railway system, which suffers nearly 1,000 accidents every year, according to official statistics.

Social media users have recalled comments by Sisi in 2017, when the president rebuked suggestions by the now-resigned Arafat to invest 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($570m) in revamping the railway network.

"You tell me to spend 10 billion on technical and electrical issues, but if I put those 10 billion in a bank, I can make 1 billion pound in interest, or 2 billion at the new rate," Sisi said at the time to an audience of ministers and other army generals.

But on Sunday, Sisi vowed to support Wazir’s efforts to reform the system by 2020.

“If you want [military] officers from the vehicles administration, the armoured vehicles [administration] or the engineers ... I don’t have a problem,” he said during an event organised by the army.

Sisi also told Wazir during the event that he has been promoted to the rank of lieutenant general.

In response, Wazir hailed Sisi as his “brother and friend”, and promised to deliver on his promises of developing the sector by 2020.

Sisi’s appointment of a military general as transport minister is unprecedented since the era of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. For nearly 60 years, the transport portfolio has been assigned to civilians.

The military will now control investments, including those with foreign suppliers ... further expanding the military’s economic role and its vast patronage network

- Robert Springborg, analyst

 “Other than irrigation, the rail system is the most venerable of Egypt’s public works and one, like irrigation, always associated with the civilian sector,” Robert Springborg, a non-resident research fellow of the Italian Institute for International Affairs and an analyst of Egypt’s military economy, told Middle East Eye.

According to Springborg, Wazir’s appointment could mean the ministry would be subordinated to the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, which he previously ran.

“The military will now control investments, including those with foreign suppliers ... further expanding the military’s economic role and its vast patronage network,” he said.

Springborg said that Wazir's appointment can therefore be seen as an indicator of the expanding role of the military, which has been bolstered since the 2013 military coup led by Sisi against his democratically elected civilian predecessor Mohamed Morsi.

It also comes as Egypt’s parliament is discussing constitutional amendments that would extend Sisi's presidency until 2034 and give the military a privileged status above civilian institutions.

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