Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Challenging times ahead

Few MPs expect Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to be granted an easy ride as he prepares to deliver his government’s policy statement before parliament, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Sherif Ismail
Sherif Ismail
Al-Ahram Weekly

After this week’s speech to parliament by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, it is now the turn of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail to address MPs and deliver his government’s policy statement.

In preparation, Ismail has spent much of the last week meeting with MPs from constituencies across Egypt. On Monday and Tuesday this week he also held meetings with the heads of state-owned and private newspapers.

Ismail told a meeting of editors-in-chief on Tuesday that he will deliver his government’s statement before parliament early next month, at the latest. “It will take no more than one hour and will be titled ‘Reviving Hope in the National Economy’,” he said.

On Tuesday, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati said Ismail was most likely to deliver his government’s policy statement to MPs on 27 February.

Al-Agati told journalists that once the policy statement has been delivered before the House of Representatives it will be referred to various parliamentary committees to be discussed in the presence of the relevant cabinet ministers.

“Article 146 of the constitution stipulates that within one month parliament must complete its report on the statement and recommend to MPs whether they should renew or withdraw confidence from Ismail’s government,” said Al-Agati.

Commentators and analysts agree that hard times lie ahead for Ismail’s government. The policy statement will be delivered amid growing rumours that the government, desperate to shore up currency reserves, will seek parliamentary approval for a major devaluation in the Egyptian pound. Though the current official rate is LE7.83, black market rates this week saw the pound fall to an all-time low of LE9 per dollar, forcing the government’s hand.

Rumours are also rampant that the government will announce a partial phase-out of subsidies on electricity, water and the cost of travel on the Cairo Metro system.

In his meetings with editors-in-chief, Ismail said several factors have combined to cause the dollar crisis. Egypt’s import bill, he said, is spiralling out of control as “millions of dollars are squandered on buying non-essential goods and items that have a local equivalent that is often lower priced and of better quality”.

Statistics issued by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) showed a $39 billion gap between imports and exports in fiscal year 2014-2015 as imports reached $61 billion compared to $22 billion worth of exports. This year’s figures are likely to be worse, with the fallout from the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai on 31 October costing millions of dollars in lost tourism revenue.

On Tuesday, CBE’s deputy governor, Gamal Negm, was left to pile on yet more bad news. “Suez Canal receipts were down $290 million in 2015 compared to the previous year as a result of the slowdown in the global economy,” he announced. The fall in receipts means that “additional pressure has been placed foreign currency reserves, which fell to $16.4 billion in December 2015.” In December 2011, a month before the uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak from power, foreign reserves stood at $36 billion.

Ismail told editors on Monday that he would not use his statement to the House of Representatives to unveil any “shocking measures to contain the dollar crisis”.

“The government does not believe in shock tactics. We prefer to work towards our goals gradually,” said the prime minister. “The government must take painful economic decisions that have been long delayed but are necessary, and in doing so it will give parliament as much advance notice as possible, as well as ensuring that the most economically vulnerable members of society do not bear the burdens of the necessary changes.”

While many MPs said they appreciated the prime minister meeting with them to explain government policy, they were still opposed to any further devaluation of the Egyptian pound.

Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the Reform and Development Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “While there is obviously a great deal of concern over the discrepancy between the official and black market rates at which the pound is trading to the dollar, further devaluation is likely to cause a reduction in the living standards of ordinary Egyptians and this is something that, as MPs, we must oppose.”

Amin Masoud, an independent MP who represents north Cairo’s poor district of Shorabiya, told the Weekly, “Any new devaluation in the official rate of the Egyptian pound could spark wide-scale street protests.”

Said Masoud, “We cannot afford to forget the results of the devaluation in the pound and reduction of subsidies introduced in 1977. The result — widespread protests and food rioting. This is not something that parliament will allow to be repeated.”

“The problem with Prime Minister Sherif Ismail is that he is not a politician,” said MP Emad Gad, an Al-Ahram political analyst. “He is a technocrat who works to carry out orders he has received. This is the last thing Egypt needs at this important time.”

Gad continued, “There are rumours of an impending cabinet reshuffle, mainly involving ministers with economic portfolios. What I hope is that Ismail himself is also replaced, and that his successor will be a politician who knows how to win the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens and MPs.”

Gad also warned, “If Ismail’s statement fails to command a vote of confidence then it will be up to the House of Representatives to propose an alternative government. Should it fail to agree on a new government within one month then parliament itself will be considered dissolved.”

A plenary session of the House of Representatives has been scheduled for Sunday to debate the internal bylaws regulating parliament. Bahaaeddin Abu Shukka, appointed by President Al-Sisi as an MP, told reporters on Monday that the draft bill regulating parliament contains 440 articles. It has been recommended that parliamentary committees be increased from 19 to 28 to facilitate the exercise of parliament’s supervisory role, and that the speaker’s powers be curtailed to allow for a more democratic decision-making process.

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