With a new draft of Egypt's constitution complete and due to be put to national referendum in a number of weeks, social-justice advocates are at odds over whether the amended charter will help implement their demands.
“This is the best constitution, especially when it comes to social and economic rights, not because it has realised all of our hopes in achieving social justice, but because it has taken steps,” veteran farmers’ rights activist Shahenda Maklad told Ahram Online.
Maklad strongly believes that the amended draft, which was submitted to interim President Adly Mansour on 3 December, has “paved the road for a true democratic national struggle” that will work towards achieving gains for the people, including farmers and workers.
Among the amended clauses are Articles 18, 19, 21 and 23 which require that the state allocate at least 3 percent of Gross National Product (GNP) to health, 4 percent to education, 2 percent to higher education, and 1 percent to scientific research. The new charter also states that the allocated percentages will be gradually increased "until they meet with global rates."
The 2012 constitution, which was drafted under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, obliged the state only to allocate “an adequate amount" for the items from the state budget.
In an article published last Tuesday in Al-Ahram's Arabic daily newspaper, the chief economist for the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Ahmed Said El-Naggar, praised the amended articles, arguing that they will force governments to enact the stated percentages, or else their budgets will be unconstitutional.
El-Naggar stated that the allocated percentages are considerably more than the allotted amounts under both Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, and argued that the constitutional requirement will improve education and healthcare provisions for the poor.
However, Taher Mokhtar, a member of the Alexandrian Doctors Syndicate, was more sceptical about the potential for change.
“The article concerned with health is full of flaws," Mokhtar said. "It did not specify that the budget allocated by the state to the health sector should be at least 15 percent, as dictated by the Abuja declaration.”
The Abuja declaration refers to an April 2011 meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, in which African Union countries pledged to increase their governments' health funding to at least 15 percent.
“The budget needs to be redistributed to be in favour of the citizen, not the regime or businessmen,” said Mokhtar, who stressed that the health sector’s main problem is a lack of government spending. He also complained that the constitution did not “speak clearly” about salaries for employees in the health sector.
Spokesman for the liberal Free Egyptians Party, Shehab Waguih, expressed his support for the amended constitution, which he said was more committed to providing social justice than the suspended 2012 national charter.
“Without doubt, we see that the new constitution provides social justice to a greater extent than the previous one," he said.
However, he felt that some articles in the amended constitution were "phrased in a way that might have a negative impact in the long-run on social justice."
Those articles, he said, were ones that committed the state to spending fixed percentages of the budget on different sectors. Surely, Waguih argued, the needed amount was likely to vary over time.
“The constitution was not created to deal with a particular point in time," he said. "I definitely agree that we need a way higher percentage devoted to education and health, but I can’t guarantee that in 10 years we will need the same percentage.”
Waguih also criticised Article 38, which was amended to state that “the taxes imposed on the incomes of individuals are progressive multi-tier taxes." The 2012 constitution did not mention the implementation of progressive taxes.
Progressive taxes, he insisted, are based on a policy of distributing wealth, unlike flat taxes, which create wealth.
"We believe that Egypt needs a creation of wealth not a redistribution of wealth,” he said, adding that the constitution does not need to oblige the state to either create or distribute wealth but instead should leave the option open for citizens to decide at elections.
Waguigh also expressed his fear that such a taxation programme might discourage investors and cripple political competition, as it now discriminates against political parties who support flat taxes.
“Yes, in Egypt we have suffered from economic systems that do not acknowledge social justice; but that's not a justification to force the state to commit to a certain modality,” he said.
Campaigning lawyer Ibrahim Salamoni, however, told Ahram Online that he strongly backs the implementation of progressive taxes in the new draft, describing it as a first step towards social justice.
Salamoni dismissed claims that progressive taxes would scare away investors. There are other factors or incentives that can encourage an investor, such as giving land at a lower price, and providing cheap labour, he said.
“How can we implement social justice," he argued, "when someone who earns LE1 million pays the same tax rate as someone who earns LE5,000?”
Tamer Waguih, a leftist researcher and a member of the Way of the Revolution Front, told Ahram Online that while he views the implementation of progressive taxes as a positive step, he has doubts about the implementation of the taxes, which he said are easily evaded.
“For progressive taxes to be put in effect to ensure a redistribution of wealth, then the tax rate and income brackets must be linked to economic reality,” he said.
Tamer Waguih also argued that the constitution lacks provisions to protect the public from monopolistic businessmen.
“We have an economic system based on free market [principles] and neo-liberalism and on the presence of a group of influential businessmen working via a kind of crony capitalism," he said.
Tamer Waguih criticised the new draft, saying that rather than remedying “the system that causes poverty in Egypt,” it instead only “slightly improv[es] the situation" by increasing education and health spending.
He also criticised Article 124 of the draft, which states that the government is forbidden from authorising any social spending without securing funding, thus leaving a balanced state budget, mandated by the draft constitution, intact.
According to Tamer Waguih, the article leaves the door open for the implementation of austerity measures.
“In my opinion, the new draft of the constitution has put no obstacles in front of the mechanisms that cause poverty in Egypt,” he added.
The researcher also criticised the removal of an article mandating that 50 percent of members of parliament should be either workers or farmers.
The quota had been in place since the 1960s. In recent years, however, it has become a source of controversy, as some have argued that the loose definition of what it means to be a worker or a farmer leaves room for exploitation.
“If the quota was misused, that doesn’t mean it gets cancelled; instead you should...tighten the measure in order to regulate it,” he said.
By cancelling the quota, workers and farmers now can only negotiate their rights through unions, the majority of which “are either weak or co-opted," he argued.
In spite of her strong support for the amended constitution, Maklad also told Ahram Online that she wished the workers and farmers quota had been kept untouched.
"Their argument that the quota has been stolen from them [workers and farmers] is a weak argument," she said, "because we used to be under circumstances where all the rights and the votes of people were being robbed."