High committees and low incomes
Presidential directives for faster implementation of government appointments and intellectual introspection featured in the Egyptian press this week, writes Aziza Sami
News of an economic rapprochement between Egypt and the Sudan dominated the dailies on 21 July. This, though considered politically important coming in the wake of the recent mediation undertaken by Egypt between the Sudanese government and John Garang's movement in the south of the country, was nevertheless dealt with in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by the national daily Al- Akhbar's Editor-in-Chief Galal Dowidar. Writing that "meetings are not an objective: what matters is the outcome", Dowidar referred to the recent visit undertaken to Khartoum by Egyptian Prime Minister Atef Ebeid, during which the Higher Joint Egyptian-Sudanese Committee convened.
"If Egyptian and Sudanese officials have, under the umbrella of the Joint Committee, signed 15 agreements and memoranda of understanding, what is more important is that the lower authorities in each country work to implement what was agreed upon with sincere intentions and a desire for positive work," he wrote.
Such an admonishment may be justified, given, as Dowidar himself pointed out, the plethora of "high committees" that have been established between Egypt and almost every other Arab country, and which appear to have born little fruit to date. The question of cooperation with Sudan is all the more pertinent, not only because of historic ties between the two countries, but also because of the previous, and much-publicised, "economic integration" initiative, which has failed to take off despite having been announced by the two countries in the 1970s.
On a lighter note, the opposition daily Al-Wafd, issued by the Wafd Party, reported on 21 July that Egyptian customs authorities had "confiscated 300 cartons of mangos, given by the Sudanese government as a present to Prime Minister Atef Ebeid". Al-Wafd reported that a similar cargo of mangos had been confiscated from Minister of Public Enterprise Mukhtar Khattab, who had been given them as a gift during a recent visit to Khartoum.
The dailies on 21 July reported news of yet another generation of future graduates enrolling in the universities. The scores required for entry to the "prime" faculties of medicine, pharmacology and engineering were, as reported by the national daily Al-Ahram, 96.9 per cent, 95.6 per cent and 91.9 per cent, respectively. In the wake of frustrations expressed by thousands of older and once-hopeful university graduates at the government's repeated promises that it would provide them jobs, Al-Akhbar, reported on 21 July "the beginning of procedures to appoint 150,000 graduates to government service".
The paramount importance given by the government to job creation was again reflected in the dailies on 22 July, with Al- Akhbar reporting that President Mubarak had, in a meeting with the entire cabinet, instructed that "priority must be given to providing new job opportunities for young people". Al-Ahram reported meanwhile that "the president had placed priority on providing job opportunities through programmes announced by the government and [had stressed] the importance of transparency in announcing job vacancies on the provincial levels and in the media."
Spiralling prices and inflationary pressures continued to make the headlines this week.
Al-Akhbar on 22 July reported a four piastre increase in the exchange rate of the pound to the US dollar, saying that the dollar was now to be sold in banks at LE6.14 and bought at LE6.11. The paper quoted financial sources as asserting that "moving" the price of the dollar had "motivated people to offer for sale the currency they hold".
Al-Akhbar meanwhile also reported the head of the customs authority Mahfouz El-Ergawy as saying that the new customs law, whose first draft has just been prepared, was aimed at complying with "new economic developments and the adoption of a free economy". El-Ergawy's statements indicated that work will be done to speed up cargo delivery in ports, and "train the human elements" that will undertake customs assessments deemed by international agencies and investors to be too high.
Al-Wafd reported on 24 July that "members of parliament's economic committee have fled to sea-side resorts and refused a request by the committee's head to discuss rising prices." Meanwhile, the weekly Al-Ahali, issued by the left-wing opposition Tagammu' Party, on 23 July reported that the party's representatives in parliament, along with a number of independent MPs, had tabled questions concerning spiralling commodity prices at a time when salaries had remained fixed.
Al-Ahali quoted Tagammu' MP Abdel-Aziz Shaaban as "having condemned" government policies aiming at reducing subsidies and liberalising the economy. However, no mention was made of the reverse side of the lack of productivity and poor export performance also being factors leading to the current incongruence between prices and salaries.
On 23 July Al-Ahali was careful to give prominence to statements made by President Mubarak on the occasion of the anniversary of the 23 July 1952 Revolution, to the effect that the revolution had "guaranteed the defence of limited income groups". Al-Ahali also carried the news that "the price of water has increased, with the government doubling the price of one cubic metre of water for categories consuming less than 15 cubic metres a month, and prices rising progressively according to consumption before reaching seven times the current price for categories consuming more than 45 cubic metres a month."
On a more intellectual level, the weekly newspaper Al-Qahira, issued by the Ministry of Culture and edited by veteran left-wing journalist Salah Issa, came out on 22 July with news that "members of the cinema industry refuse parliamentary tribunals and demand protection against censorship and extremism".
The news item reported that a number of Egyptian actors, critics, directors and former censors had signed a petition demanding support in their fight against a tendency within parliament, and amongst some writers in the media, to demand new laws increasing the censorship and "taboos" that restrict creative expression.
For his part, Salah Issa commented on the "intellectuals' conference" recently held in Cairo, directing criticism at what he described as a "trend, led by the Algerian author Al-Taher Wattar, which portrayed the conference as a 'roadmap' aimed at pressuring Arab writers into making Islam conform with Bush's theories". Referring to the introspection and self-appraisal undertaken by Islamist groups such as Egypt's Al-Gama'a Al- Islamiya, which had renounced militant action even before 11 September, Issa queried whether this now meant "that we, as intellectuals, must now denounce Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya's reversal of thought, on the premise that this too conforms to America's dictates?"
Writing on the same subject, but from a different perspective, Farouk Guweida in Al-Ahram's 25 July issue wrote on "cultural, or religious, discourse". In his article, Guweida called for a distinction to be drawn between "those who work to attain a balanced religious discourse and those trying to destroy the temple along with all that is inside it." He then asked "whether it is religious discourse alone which is responsible for our crises and cultural and intellectual problems", alluding to other factors, such as "intellectual and political tyranny, censorship and a lack of leadership".
Guweida contended that "while it is true that a new religious discourse is needed, the question is who will determine the form of this discourse, its criteria and the manner of attaining it".
Over the course of the week, Al-Wafd continued a new editorial policy that featured the Wafd Party's new leader, Noman Gomaa, as an all-knowing political observer. A garish frame was positioned on the newspaper's front page on 21 July, embellishing a large photograph of Gomaa, and decorated with platitudes such as, "the current economic climate repels capital and investment", and "all parties must immediately refrain from saying that this or that bank has extended a loan without guarantees".
Whether this narcissistic exercise in self-assertion by the Wafd Party's leader will win readers over remains to be seen.