Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No fig leaf

We always talk of corruption; rarely do we ask how it came about, writes Amin Howeidy*

Unprincipled or unethical conduct cannot be successfully countered if we continue to ignore its causes. Corruption is the result of a corrupting process, and ignoring this is like trying to cure a disease without tackling its root cause. Cain killed Abel, but the crow taught him how to conceal his sin. Of course, Cain and Abel continued to procreate, making moot any talk of finally terminating evil. Ever since, the most that mankind has been able to do has been to hide corruption -- which is exactly what the United Nations did when it issued its Convention against Corruption on 31 October, 2003. Under the umbrella of this convention, signed by world governments, evil spread like a rampant two- headed hydra. If one head were struck off, the other would spring up with equally venomous tenacity. This of course is a metaphor denoting the double-workings of both corrupted and corrupt, who breed their germs in countries whose capabilities are weak. Such ravaging corruption does not abide in states whose institutions are capable of sound planning, precise execution, and vigilant supervision. A strong state will also safeguard the security of its citizens, not only its rulers. And it will, with equal efficacy, counter internal and external threats while inducing both governing and governed to respect its laws, money and possessions.

Such a state will resist both corruption and those seeking to corrupt. In so doing, it removes the impediments to progress, given that corruption will impede all economic development and healthy investment. Take our law No 175 for the year 2005 for instance. This stipulates that a member of parliament cannot be employed in a government or public sector position, nor can he work in a foreign company while he is an MP. Article 158 of this law asserts that "a minister cannot buy or lease anything using the financial resources of the state." Such are the safeguards against the abuse of power, but are they upheld? Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, that great Companion of the Prophet, prohibited his peers, the other Companions, from acceding to the governorship of the new regions where Islam had newly entered. He did so in order to close the door in the face of any temptation to exploit position and power. But no Ibn Al-Khattab lives amongst us today.

We are so far-placed from all of this, with our tendency to perpetuate positions of power for 10 and 20 years and more. Such continuity is not stability, but an element that is blatantly corrupting.

The manner, for instance, in which state property was exploited and donated in the form of grants and presents at nominal prices far beneath their true worth was exposed recently at the notorious "Marina Auction" held by the Ministry of Housing. The auction, where villas and residences were sold at six- digit prices, exposed the extent to which this popular sea-side resort had been exploited, with its prime locations and real estate given to officials at ludicrously low prices. The same pattern may be gleaned in districts like Al-Mugamma' Al-Khamis and Qatamiya, with their neighbourhoods exclusive to government ministers and high-placed officials. Rumours of corruption also abound in several high-profile cases related to the ongoing privatisation programme, the latest of which was the deal to sell Egypt's largest internal trading company, Omar Effendi. There are questions raised too over the sale of 17 per cent of the Naga Hammadi Aluminium Complex, which was announced last February. The complex is being privatised despite its having brought a net profit of LE700 million to the state coffers last year. The public also wants to know why, for instance, the Bank of Alexandria was offered for sale to an anchor, hence expectedly foreign, investor, in a sector deemed to be nationally strategic. All this must be reviewed, until the government can settle on a system that is transparent, prevents rumour, and prohibits all those driven by the desire for personal gain. It is vital that this be done, in order to relieve the public's growing frustration, from which one can predict the beginnings of a potentially explosive situation.

In the final analysis, a strong state proceeds based on three elements: sound planning, precise execution, and a vigilant supervision which deters those crossing the line, while rewarding those who adhere to principled conduct. Despite this, one of the important monitoring devices of the Egyptian state, the administrative regulatory agency, was abolished. This agency played a vital role back in the 1960s, with its detailed reports routinely submitted to the relevant ministerial committees. Can we interpret the current uncontrolled corruption as one expected consequence of the absence of such a monitoring process? Good regulation means that the government must catch, not only the small fish, but the whales and sharks as well. Otherwise, we will continue to live with the eternal spectacle of the "open drawer", a popular expression denoting desk- drawers pulled back, (by government officials) in anticipation of bribes soon to fill them. Services rendered are proportionate to the "gifts" donated of course.

To end on a lighter note, one may repeat a joke that, for all its revealing cynicism or because of it, is popular in several Arab countries. "A communist recounted that his father was a communist, as was his mother. This meant, he said, that he had inherited communism from both his parents. A friend then asked him, 'but does this mean that if both your parents were thieves, you too would have grown up a thief?' To which the man responded, 'No, it would have meant that I would be a member of the Ruling Party'."

* The writer is former minister of defence and chief of general intellegence

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