Egypt names new interior minister to combat religious extremism

CAIRO (REUTERS) - Egypt replaced its interior minister on Thursday with a retired general who has experience combating religious extremism as the country fights radical Islamist militants seeking to topple the Cairo government.

Egypt has been grappling with rising Islamist militancy since then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted freely elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 after mass protests against his rule.

Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have been killed in deadly attacks claimed by the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group, which changed its name to Sinai Province after pledging allegiance to Islamic State.

The presidency said in a statement that Mohamed Ibrahim, who was appointed by Mursi, was replaced by Magdi Abdel Ghaffar. Ibrahim was made an adviser to the prime minister with the rank of deputy prime minister.

The change was part of a Cabinet reshuffle concerning eight portfolios in all, including the agriculture, tourism, and telecommunications ministries.

Ibrahim's tenure saw an increase in attacks against police around the country. On Monday, a series of bombs hit the capital, killing two people outside a courthouse. Two of the attacks were near police stations.

Ibrahim had a large role in one of the biggest crackdowns on the Brotherhood since Mursi's ouster. The movement denies any link with militants and says it is committed to peaceful activism.

Egyptian police, notorious for human rights abuses during the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, melted away during the uprising that toppled him in 2011.

Since then, the police have made a strong comeback, with rights groups once again accusing them of abuses. Several secular activists have also been jailed since Mursi's ouster for violating a law curbing demonstrations.

Authorities deny allegations of abuse.

Public anger has also grown after at least 19 people were killed outside a Cairo soccer stadium in February when security forces barred fans from entering.

"(Given) the complicated security situation and the constant change in tactics of terrorist groups... it was understandable that there be new blood (in the ministry)," Khaled Okasha, a retired brigadier general and security expert, told Reuters.

"The appointment of Abdel Ghaffar is an indication that tackling terrorism is the priority," he said.

"The ministry will definitely witness a new strategy to combat terrorism."

State news agency Mena said Abdel Ghaffar had worked in the interior ministry's National Security service and oversaw a division that dealt with religious extremism, at one point serving as director of the service.

The reshuffle came just over a week before a high-profile investment conference in Sharm El-Sheikh from which Egypt hopes to secure up to US$12 billion (S$16 billion) in domestic and foreign investment.