Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

In defence of social justice

MPs warn the government’s economic policies could lead to street protests, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

MPs teamed up this week to attack the government policy statement presented to parliament by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail on 27 March, accusing the government of pandering to the interests of the rich at the expense of those on limited incomes.

In response to attacks Ismail instructed cabinet ministers in charge of economic and finance portfolios to promote the government’s strategy to defend social justice.

Attacks against the government were led by leftwing MPs opposed to cuts in subsidies on basic goods and services.

“The government’s hostility to the poorer classes is apparent in its policy of phasing out subsidies on electricity and water,” said leftist MP Haitham Al-Hariri.

Al-Hariri pointed out that while the government has reduced state subsidies on water and electricity by 30 per cent this year it has announced that factories owned by wealthy industrialists will be provided with cheap natural gas. “These aren’t the actions of a government committed to working for the poor,” he concluded.

Newly-appointed Minister of Finance Amr Al-Garhi insists that the government has placed social justice at the top of its priorities.

“The 2015/2016 budget allocates LE220 billion on programmes to promote social justice,” he said. “But the government also realises that to be sustainable these programmes must be accompanied by rapid growth in economic and investment rates. Our target is to raise investment by seven or eight per cent this year.”

Al-Garhi reminded MPs that rising import bills and the fall in tourism revenues have exerted negative pressure on state finances. He also stressed the impact of Egypt having one of the world’s highest rates of population growth.

“Runaway population growth exerts inflationary pressures. At the same time five years of political and economic instability has forced the government to borrow from foreign and Arab lenders in order to build new electricity and water stations to service the needs of Egypt’s growing number of citizens.”

Minister of Planning Ashraf Al-Arabi also refuted accusations the government was ignoring social justice. “The government is adopting restricted market economy policies that aim to boost private investment while simultaneously promoting social justice,” he said.

Responding to a question on mega-development projects posed by Amin Massoud, an MP representing the Cairo district of Al-Sharabiya, Al-Arabi argued the projects placed no additional pressures on the state budget.  “The mega-projects are on the whole funded by private investments. Their goal is to raise growth rates, reduce imports and create jobs,” he said.

“The new Egyptian Countryside Project has LE15 billion of capital and will spearhead the creation of productive agricultural and rural communities. Egypt’s new administrative capital, which will be built for $45 billion, is an abitious three-stage housing project mainly financed by private investors from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Germany, Singapore and Italy.  When complete it will house 18 million citizens in a new, environment-friendly city.”

Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali also waded in to the fray, highlighting the government’s three year Dignity and Mutual Support project.

“This project – mainly funded by foreign loans and international finance agreements – will lift half a million families out of poverty. In addition the government is considering adding four million citizens to the list of those eligible to receive subsidised goods on ration cards.”

Wali did, however, concede that the moves would be insufficient to eliminate poverty in Egypt. “We still need costly social security and subsidised national health programmes in all of Egypt’s 27 governorates,” she said.

Many MPs voiced concern that the government has withdrawn from the provision of low-cost housing for poor and limited-income families. Others complained that the Health Ministry was not doing enough to stem the rise in the price of medicines. The price of drugs, claimed Massoud, had risen by 30-40 per over the course of a month because of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound.  Wafd Party MP Ali Badr accused Health Minister Amr Abul-Yazeed of failing to prevent “private drug companies and hospitals from monopolising the market and ratcheting up the prices they charge”.

Minister of Housing Mustafa Madbouli conceded skyrocketing prices of construction materials between 2010 and 2016 had exerted a drag on low-cost housing projects. “Yet despite this the government is currently building one million social housing units that citizens will be able to access for a down-payment of  LE9,000 on a three-room flat. Five years ago poor families would have had to find LE5,000 for a two-room flat,” he said.

The government’s goal, said Madbouli, is to ensure “poor citizens in informal communities are re-housed in healthy new ones within ten years”.

Dozens of MPs seized the opportunity to open fire on foreign-funded NGOs, tabling questions to Ismail demanding he take a firm stand against foreign-funded NGOs operating without a licence in Egypt.

Journalist and independent MP Abdel-Rehim Ali submitted an urgent statement on Monday accusing foreign-funded human rights NGOs of leading a conspiracy against the state.

“Foreign money in general, and foreign-funded NGOs in particular, have played a leading role in funding terrorist and criminal acts in Egypt in recent years. It is high time this flow of money was stopped,” he said.

Without providing evidence, Ali claimed last week’s hijacking of an EgyptAir Airbus and its subsequent diversion to Cyprus, was “funded by foreign money”.

He cited Minister of Social Solidarity Wali’s disclosure this week to a parliamentary committee that 61 foreign-funded NGOs had been ordered by her ministry to adjust their positions to comply with NGO Law no.84/2002.

 “So far only six NGOs have complied with the order,” said Ali. He demanded the prime minister’s office provide MPs with the names of the remaining 56 NGOs which have yet to comply.

“We want to expose all the traitors who have received foreign money to fund conspiracies against Egypt.”

“Why is it the government still refuses to open the file of foreign funding in Egypt?” he asked. “Could it be because it faces tremendous foreign pressure over the issue?”

In another “urgent statement” tabled on Sunday night, independent MP Mustafa Bakri accused the British and American embassies in Cairo of “exerting pressure on the government not to open the file of foreign-funded NGOs”.

Bakri accused the British ambassador to Egypt of threatening an angry reaction if the government closed down the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture.

According to Bakri, government action seeking to close the Al-Nadeem Centre has exposed Egypt to a wave of foreign attacks.

“The closure of this foreign-funded centre and the reopening of a judicial investigation into foreign funding of human rights NGOs led US Secretary of State John Kerry and the EU parliament to issue statements against Egypt,” said Bakri. “These two statements clearly show there is a Western conspiracy to spread chaos in Egypt,” he claimed.

Bakri demanded parliament play a more active role in stemming the flow of foreign funding in Egypt.

“The NGOs law should be amended to impose a tighter ban on foreign funding of NGOs and the Foreign Ministry should move to defend the state against attacks by foreign embassies on the Health Ministry and the government,” he said.

On Sunday, parliamentary speaker Ali Abdel-Al praised NGOs which focus on promoting economic development. During a visit to the offices of Heliopolis District Development Abdel-Al said NGOs operating in Egypt should focus on helping the government implement its development objectives. “They should help the government in areas such as rehabilitating slum districts, providing clean water to villages and encouraging citizens to participate in public life,” he said.

A 13-member parliamentary delegation is expected to travel to Brussels this month to discuss the human rights in Egypt with EU parliament officials. The visit comes in response to a resolution issued by the EU parliament last month addressing human rights in Egypt following the brutal murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni who was tortured to death in January.

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