Nazif under fire
Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was bullish in defence of his two-year-old government's economic policies, insisting that it had notched up a series of successes, introducing much needed reforms that had resulted in growth rates of 7.1 per cent and attracted $11.1 billion in foreign direct investment in 2007. Nazif also boasted that in the last 12 months the number of tourists visiting Egypt had for the first time exceeded 10 million, and that dollar reserves held by the Central Bank of Egypt are at an all time high of $31 billion.
Nor, said Nazif, had the government pursued its economic goals at the expense of the poor. The dramatic rise in the cost of food and the number of Egyptians living on or below the poverty line was a result, he said, of rising international commodity prices, most notably of cereals. "Economic growth has seen domestic salaries increase which has in turn caused an increase in consumption levels and household purchasing power," said Nazif, who nonetheless conceded that the benefits had yet to trickle down to those on limited incomes.
Nazif said the government remained committed to addressing inequality and would expand its social safety net to include one million families rather than the 650,000 currently covered. He revealed government plans to allocate an additional 10.5 million ration cards to those on limited incomes, allowing holders to access basic food stuffs at subsidised prices.
Containing unemployment by creating real jobs for the young, rationalising subsidies and ensuring that they target the poorest and improving public services are the three main challenges Nazif said his government faces. Inroads had already been made in all three areas, and privatisation proceeds and the receipts from the sale of a third mobile network had been earmarked for upgrading railway services and the provision of potable water.
Nazif's statement on Sunday failed to contain the anger of 14 opposition and independent MPs who the following day fired a barrage of criticisms at government policies. The MPs, either left-leaning or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that the government's liberal economic policies would trigger a revolt of the hungry if they remained unchanged.
Wafdist MP Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud said the Nazif government had consistently promoted the interests of the rich. "The current government is the result of a marriage between wealthy businessmen and corrupt politicians in the ruling party," he said, citing the American Embassy in Cairo's annual economic trends report, which estimates that 52 per cent of Egyptians now live below the poverty line, as evidence of its failure to improve the lot of the poor. More than 15 million Egyptians now live in slums and "cities of the dead", he continued, while "the business tycoons who sit in the cabinet exploit their ministerial posts to accumulate ever more wealth at the expense of the poor".
Independent MP Kamal Ahmed said his figures about poverty in Egypt came from an Institute of National Planning (INP) report which estimates that the number of poor people in Egypt rose from 28 million in 2005 to 52 million in 2006. The INP report also revealed that 2.5 million people live in Cairo's main cemetery, the City of the Dead, that 33 per cent of the population of Cairo's slums could afford neither fruit nor meat and 58 per cent subsisted on two or less meals a day.
Such alarming statistics, he argued, were an inevitable consequence of pursuing economic policies that had concentrated vast wealth in the hands of just 10 per cent of the population. In a theatrical flourish Ahmed brandished two loaves of bread before parliament, demanding to know why, if the bread is too bad for cabinet ministers to eat, it is dished out to the poor.
Hamdeen Sabahi, another leftist MP, accused Nazif of bowing to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMP), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). "We know that these institutions promote liberal economic policies in Third World countries regardless of their social impact, policies that in the past have resulted in uprisings of the poor," he said. Three million poor people living in slums around Cairo could, he warned, easily destabilise the country, especially when they have lost all hope that their conditions will improve. "They are hungry and sick and tired of the alliance of billionaire businessmen and corrupt politicians that run the country."
Firebrand MP Mustafa Bakri alleged that under Nazif's government Egypt had been taken over by hugely wealthy tycoons. "This handful of businessmen have nationalised Egypt in their favour, spread corruption and monopolised wealth," he said, drawing a comparison with a fresh university graduate lucky enough to find a job and whose starting salary was unlikely to be more than LE150 a month. "This salary buys just five kilos of meat," said Bakr, "whereas under late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the salary of a new university graduate would buy as much as 68 kilos."
The Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc joined in the attacks. Hamdi Hassan, a Brotherhood MP from Alexandria, said that under Nazif's government the number of people committing suicide had increased and "young people are now ready to die off the coasts of Europe than to live in abject poverty and listen to Nazif's rosy statements about the economy and employment." Farid Ismail, Brotherhood MP for Sharqiya, accused Nazif's government of pushing university professors and government employees into poverty rather than seeking to raise the prospects of industrial workers and the rural poor.
Seventy opposition and independent MPs demanded a vote of no confidence in the government, a move that the majority NDP MPs refused to endorse. But Zakaria Azmi, a senior NDP official and the chief of presidential staff, surprised MPs when he revealed that the ruling party does have reservations over the performance of Nazif's government. "More than 146 NDP MPs are eager to see the economic performance of this government scrutinised more closely in order to determine how it serves the interests of the poor," said Azmi.