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Egyptian PM in hot water after blaming unclean breasts for infant illness

Egyptians opposing President Mohamed Morsi hold an effigy mocking him in Tahrir square in Cairo February 8, 2013.

MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS

Egypt's prime minister faces accusations of being out of touch with the country's crisis after televised comments blaming rural infant sickness on mothers not washing their breasts.

Hisham Kandil, a former irrigation minister widely seen as a stolid technocrat, was speaking at a meeting with journalists broadcast on state television this week when he veered into a ramble on the "miseries" of life in rural Egypt.

"In my work, I've gone around the countryside," he said. "There are villages in Egypt, in the 21st century, where children get diarrhoea ... because the mothers who nurse them, out of ignorance, do not maintain personal cleanliness of their breasts."

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Recalling a visit to the Beni Suef area south of Cairo in 2004, he spoke of the dire conditions of village life. "There's no water, there's no sewerage," he said. "The men go to the mosque ... the women go down to the fields and get raped."

He appeared to be responding to complaints about a series of attacks and rapes of political activists in Cairo in recent weeks, citing the case of a man who was caught on video being beaten and dragged naked by police.

"I don't know Hamada [Saber], well, I know him like you do, but I am 99 per cent sure he doesn't pay his electricity bill," the prime minister said of the victim of that videoed beating.

His remarks unleashed a storm of criticism, much of it reflecting a sense of economic and political malaise that has settled over the country since an uprising two years ago that toppled veteran autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.

Dina Abdel Fattah, a talk show host on the independent Tahrir channel questioned why the head of government had dwelt on the subject when Egypt was in a state of "darkness."

At least 59 people died in 10 days of protests that started late last month over what demonstrators see as Islamist President Mohamed Morsi's attempts to monopolize power as well as broader economic and political grievances.

"Imagine. Our prime minister is talking about this today, when we have martyrs in the street, we have people getting killed every day, when we have entire provinces in a state of unrest," Abdel Fattah said on her show.

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Another television channel, Al Nahar, interviewed residents of Beni Suef voicing dismay at Kandil's comments.

"It's no good the prime minister talking this nonsense about women, good people, clean people, and ignoring all the other problems of the world," one man said on the programme.

Since his election in June, Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has struggled to restore security and revive the ailing economy.

Small demonstrations continued on Friday, drawing thousands of protesters in Cairo and other cities including Tanta in the Nile Delta and Port Said on the Suez Canal.

Critics questioned Morsi's appointment of Kandil in July, saying it was unclear whether he had the political or economic experience for the job.

"Instead of making offensive comments about poor village women and laying blame on them when God knows they are already suffering, he should be blaming himself for the failure of his government to find a proper solution to alleviate poverty, illiteracy and awful health schemes in villages," said Iman Mahmoud, a 61-year-old housewife in Cairo.

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