Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 January 2008
Issue No. 880
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two round match

Gamal Essam El-Din reports on Monday's public spat between the chairman of the Central Auditing Agency and the minister of finance

Click to view caption
El-Malt and Ghali during the stormy session

Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali and chairman of the Central Auditing Agency (CAA) Gawdat El-Malt clashed in the People's Assembly on Monday after El-Malt accused Ghali of flippancy in discussing CAA reports monitoring the economic and fiscal performance of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif's government over the last two fiscal years.

The CAA reports, said El-Malt, contained 22 major criticisms of the three-year-old government's economic performance as opposed to just 12 positive points. He accused the government of turning a blind eye to rampant corruption and doing too little to contain spiralling domestic debt and inflation. Government inaction, he went on, has led to "the wide gap of confidence that now separates the Nazif government from the public".

"This government does not care about poor Egyptians and its economic achievements have yet to improve the lot of those on limited- incomes," El-Malt said. The government, he continued, systematically ignores the activities of illegal importers and of those who monopolise markets in order to increase prices. He then described government attempts to redress the huge trade deficit and reduce domestic debt as "shameful".

Ghali responded by emphasising that the government remained keen that the poor should reap the benefits of economic reform and countered that some of El-Malt's criticisms should actually be counted as among the government's achievements. The CAA's reports about the financial and economic performance of the government, he said, were at best "very general" and "often entirely unfounded".

Sunday's mild exchange of accusations escalated on Monday when El-Malt accused Ghali of slandering him in public and of failing to provide "a definite" response to the CAA's criticisms. "That Ghali attempted to argue that the 22 remarks were positive rather than negative," he said, was symptomatic of the way the government insists on painting a rosy economic picture in the face of fact and figures. His comments elicited thunderous applause from opposition MPs.

El-Malt took Ghali to task for the burgeoning trade deficit which reached LE15.8 billion, and for misleadingly citing the World Bank (WB) report Doing Business. Ghali, he said, had urged newspapers to focus on only those paragraphs that praised government efforts to facilitate business in Egypt and ignore any more critical appraisals contained in the report. Yet the report for 2006, he pointed out, ranked Egypt in the bottom 10 of the 175 countries surveyed, and that improvements in the ranking for 2007, when Egypt came in at 126 out of 178 countries, was hardly something to boast about. The same report placed Egypt 11th out of the 16 Arab countries surveyed in terms of facilitating business yet "the government insisted on misleading the public as it portrayed itself as among the world's success stories in 2007".

Ghali was joined by the Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab in launching a verbal counter attack. Shehab described El-Malt's charges as "too cynical and entirely unfounded".

"He may accuse us of painting a rosy picture but his own analysis is far too bleak," argued Shehab. "Egypt," he continued, "is a developing country but also an emerging economy that has achieved a great deal in terms of reform and this is appreciated by the international business community."

El-Malt responded by saying that the CAA's 300 reports -- covering more than 30,000 pages in total -- on the performance of government economic institutions had been systematically ignored.

Ghali then told El-Malt that he had no right to speak on behalf of the World Bank.

"You are not the representative of the World Bank in Egypt and have no grounds on which to discuss its reports with me," said the minister. Ghali then said he had discussed the World Bank reports with its representatives in Egypt. "We told them that their remarks about Egypt were wrong and they sent us a response saying we were correct."

"I took the CAA's reports very seriously and discussed the 1637 remarks they contained," Ghali insisted, expressing surprise that El-Malt had now decided to abandon objectivity and personalise his attacks.

That, said a clearly riled El-Malt, was "slander and libel".

"I cited the World Bank's report not as its representative but to make the point that the government had been very selective in the paragraphs it highlighted to the public. To criticise me for doing this is clearly unfair. El-Malt urged parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour to remove Ghali's words from the minutes and demanded an apology.

"I will not apologise for defending either myself or the policies of my ministry though it is regrettable El-Malt took my remarks so personally," said Ghali. Sorour approved the removal of Ghali's words from the minutes.

The assembly subsequently refused, by a two thirds majority, to endorse a request submitted by 47 opposition and independent MPs seeking to refer Ghali to the Ethics Committee and file a complaint with the prosecutor-general. Some informed sources speculated that El-Malt had received a green light from the president's office to attack the government and has ambitions to be Egypt's next prime minister.

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