CAIRO, Egypt -- Egypt's prime minister faced uproar, derision and even lawsuits Thursday after he blamed health problems of babies in impoverished villages on nursing mothers who "out of ignorance" don't clean their breasts and talked of village women getting raped in the fields.
Hesham Kandil made the remarks as he tried to make a point about poverty at a press conference aired live on TV this week. The backlash put the previously little-known technocrat appointed by Islamist President Mohammed Morsi under a spotlight.
Rights advocates and activists said Thursday it showed a prime minister who is out of his depth -- and who holds elitist and patriarchal attitudes that blame poor women for everything from not bringing their children up right to bringing dishonour on society.
A number of lawyers in Beni Sweif, a province Kandil mentioned specifically, filed lawsuits against him, accusing him of libel, an official at the top prosecutor's office said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the press.
Kandil was responding to a question about whether economic policies are increasing poverty in Egypt and how poverty contributed to the wave of unrest since late January.
With a muddled and stumbling response, Kandil seemed to be trying to show he was aware of the depth of poverty in Egypt. "I've been around," he insisted.
"In the 21st century, there are still villages in Egypt where babies are infected with diarrhea... because their mothers nursing them, out of their ignorance, don't do the personal hygiene of cleaning their breasts," Kandil he said.
He spoke of visiting villages in Beni Sweif, just south of Cairo, in 2004, saying, "There is no running water or sewage."
"Men go to the mosque... Women go to the field and get raped," he said, apparently meaning men wash at the mosque while women go to the river to wash. "This is happening in Egypt."
"Egypt is full of miseries," he said. "The solution is not in violence."
Many were baffled over what point he was trying to make exactly. But critics said his comments reflected the conservative mindset of his Islamist backers -- the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, or their ultraconservative allies.
"His talk reflects extreme shallow vision and ignorance of everything related to the Egyptian community and all the problems that the Egyptian women are suffering," said Nehad Aboul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women rights, a vocal critic of the Islamists.
She saw his rape comment as implying the women were to blame for going out, while men go to mosques.
-- The Associated Press