President Hosni Mubarak on Saturday swore in a new cabinet that retained major personalities of the previous government, while adding two more pro-American business figures and installing Egypt's first woman minister to wear a headscarf, a sign of Islamic piety.
The appointment of Aysha Abdel-Hadi Abdel-Ghani - a veteran trade unionist and senior member of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party - as Minister of Labor was seen as a gesture to those who voted for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood in the recent parliamentary elections. Candidates backed by the Islamist group won a fifth of the seats and increased their presence in parliament about sixfold.
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, a Canadian-educated technocrat, retained his portfolio as did fellow heavyweights, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, tough Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, urbane Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali, one of two Christians.
The reappointment of el-Adly, meanwhile, showed Mubarak's support for the harsh methods the interior ministry has used in the past few months, first in violently blocking Muslim Brotherhood voters from reaching the polls in parliamentary elections and again on Friday when 25 people died after riot police swept into a Sudanese refugee protest camp.
In the two other significant cabinet changes, businessmen Mohammad Mansour, an auto industry tycoon and former head of the American-Egyptian Chamber of Commerce, and Amin Abaza, a major player in the cotton industry, were appointed ministers of transport and agriculture respectively. That was a clear signal that Mubarak planned to maintain a business-friendly administration.
Only eight new ministers joined the cabinet, which included 30 portfolios in Mubarak's eighth government during 24 years in power, MENA said.
Nazif also kept several reform minded ministers in place. That, with the introduction of more businessmen to the cabinet, appeared to be a result of Mubarak's election pledge to carry out an ambitious reform program of job creation and home building, two of the many faltering sectors of the country's moribund economy.
A core of ministers responsible for the economy included several men are considered close to Mubarak's powerful and reform-minded son, Gamal. They include Rashid Mohammed Rashid, minister of foreign trade and industry, Finance Minister Ghali and Investment Minister Mahmoud Mohieddin, credited with improving some sectors of government , stabilizing the local currency and boosting outside investment.
Dropped from the cabinet list was Kamal el-Shazily, minister for parliament affairs for nearly two decades and widely seen as a member of the ruling party old guard held responsible for blocking reform efforts.
Gamal Mubarak, a 42-year old investment banker, has promised political and economic reform. He and his father have denied he is being groomed for succession, but Gamal has said he cannot stop people from nominating him for president when his father's term expires in 2011.
The new cabinet is challenged by a myriad of economic problems, an increasingly frustrated population and external pressure on the regional heavyweight for change.