Appointment sparks controversy
The appointment of former housing minister Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman as chairman of a government-owned maritime services company has been greeted by a wave of protest, Gamal Essam El-Din
Controversial former minister of housing and new communities Ibrahim Suleiman is back in the limelight. An announcement on 29 June said that Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had chosen Suleiman to be chairman of the government-owned Maritime Petroleum Services Company (MPSC), explaining that Suleiman, who was a minister of housing and new communities from October 1993 to December 2006, would be responsible for upgrading the MPSC's performance and increasing its competitive edge on world markets.
MPSC belongs to the Ministry of Petroleum, and its activities include exporting petroleum services to the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries.
Though several former cabinet ministers have previously been appointed to well-paid positions, no appointment has stirred so much controversy as that of Suleiman.
In the People's Assembly, Egypt's lower house of parliament, Suleiman has long been a target of stinging accusations. In the 2000-2005 parliament, leftist MPs accused Suleiman of awarding contracts to private engineering consultancy companies with which he had close ties and tilting the ministry's policies in favour of the wealthy and construction magnates.
Early last January, as many as 48 independent and opposition MPs lodged a complaint with prosecutor- general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, alleging that Suleiman had exploited his ministerial post, abused his office and violated the constitution.
Alaa Abdel-Moneim, an independent MP who led the campaign against Suleiman, alleged that before becoming a minister of housing in 1993 Suleiman had been just a university professor and owner of a modest engineering consultancy firm. "However, by the time he left his cabinet post at the end of December 2005," Abdel-Moneim claimed, "Suleiman had become a billionaire in possession of luxurious villas, palaces and chalets in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as of a fleet of expensive cars."
Abdel-Moneim also alleged that Suleiman had abused his position by using his ministerial post to buy housing units at cheap prices in order to sell them later at high prices. "In this way, he profiteered to the tune of millions of pounds," Abdel-Moneim claimed, also alleging that Suleiman had registered much of the property in the names of family members to avoid accusations of profiteering or of violating the constitution.
In their complaint to the prosecutor-general, the opposition and independent MPs said that the constitution prohibited cabinet ministers from concluding business deals with the government. "Suleiman, however, violated the constitution by allowing his private engineering consultancy firm to clinch many construction deals with several government agencies," the MPs' complaint said.
Thus, the MPs joined forces with a number of political activists last week to attack Suleiman's appointment as MPSC chairman. In what they called a "statement to the people", the MPs and activists said that "Suleiman's appointment is a crime and an insult to the people."
"Different political forces were surprised on 29 June by Nazif's decision to appoint Suleiman as MPSC chairman," the statement continued, adding that "Nazif's decision is a crime because it violates Article 372 of parliamentary regulations, which clearly state that MPs should not be appointed to government positions."
The MPs also argued that Article 89 of the constitution stipulates that public-sector employees who are elected to parliament should resign from their jobs and devote themselves to their parliamentary role.
The statement noted that Suleiman was both a member of parliament and a professor of engineering at Cairo University and accused Nazif of ignoring parliamentary regulations and insulting public opinion. The public was disgusted, the statement said, by the fact that a former minister accused of financial irregularities should be appointed chairman of a company with an income of LE15 million per year.
Activists signing the statement included George Ishak and Ibrahim Youssri, two leading members of the opposition group Kifaya, and independent MPs Alaa Abdel-Moneim, Hamdeen Sabahi, Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud, Ahmed Nasser and Gamal Zahran.
The group urged Nazif to revoke his decision until the prosecutor-general had finished investigating complaints filed by MPs against Suleiman.
In addition to the MPs, several newspapers have also focussed on the fact that several former cabinet ministers have been able to find their way to well-paid positions in banks or public-sector companies.
The state-owned weekly magazine Al-Mussawar wondered if "the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had made it a rule that former cabinet ministers should be compensated with high-income positions," for example.
The magazine noted that former prime minister Atef Ebeid had been appointed chairman of the Arab International Bank at a monthly salary of LE1 million. "Why are former cabinet ministers always appointed chairmen of banks or companie s in the oil sector," wondered the magazine, noting that these two sectors often pay very high salaries.
For his part, Suleiman has taken up arms against his detractors. In an interview with Egyptian television's Channel One talk show Al-Beit Beitak, Suleiman insisted that he had never profited from a job.
"I gained my wealth before I became a minister of housing," Suleiman said, noting that his engineering consultancy firm had been "doing good business and achieving high profits." Suleiman said it was a great honour for him to be MPSC chairman, "one of the main activities of which is building maritime quays, seaports and oil pipelines -- part of my experience as a construction engineer."
Suleiman said that the allegations about his wealth and "illicit gains" were entirely unfounded. "The prosecutor-general has investigated my wealth many times, concluding that I had not done anything wrong to earn money or profited illegally from my job," he said.
"When I left my ministerial position in December 2005, President Mubarak awarded me the Medal of the Republic in recognition of my achievements," he added.
Suleiman argued that it was good policy for former cabinet ministers to take on top positions in the government or the public sector. "This is far better than letting them beg for jobs in the private sector at the expense of their dignity and self-esteem."
Suleiman also strongly refuted charges that his policies had tilted in favour of the wealthy when he was minister.
"Some believe that my policies favoured the rich because I gave businessmen large tracts of land at cheap prices," he said, adding that "this policy was necessary because it was important to encourage the private sector to go into the desert and build new communities there."
By virtue of this policy, Suleiman said, the government had been able to build housing in the desert that favoured both the rich and those on limited incomes.