Ever visited Egypt for a few months or lived in it for more than a year and wondered if certain things could get any worse? Things like the familiar traffic jam and – if you’re a woman – the regular butt-grab or sexually-explicit comment from a total stranger. What about enjoying the relatively low price of high-end cigarettes compared to what you have to pay in Europe, and the incomparably low price of fuel for your car – did you even worry it won’t always be this cheap?
Lo and behold! The winds of change are upon you. A group of decisions passed by two Egyptian presidents and one (technically two) governments in a couple of months may make a difference in such staple aspects of living in Egypt, especially in its populous, chaotic capital Cairo.
Finally, a sexual harassment law
Days before President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was inaugurated, former interim president Adly Mansour issued a law punishing one of Egyptian society’s major problems, one that has become an epidemic – sexual harassment.
A United Nations report in 2013 put Egypt on the global harassment map when a UN report said 99.3 percent of women surveyed said they experienced some form of sexual harassment. The international organisation said in another survey that over 70 percent want a law specifically criminalising all forms of sexual harassment, which is precisely what was finally done in June.
The new law penalises offenders with a minimum of six months in jail and an LE3,000 fine and doubles the jail term and fine for re-offenders. It also precisely defines sexual harassment. The law previously used in rare cases to indict harassers was article 268 of the penal code that laid down the punishment for “sexual assault,” more limited in its definition.
Roughly translated, the new law defines a sexual harasser as someone who "accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communication or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints.”
So now, granted you have a witness, you could actually do something about the frequent uninvited announcements of sexual desire being whispered, or sometimes yelled, at you in the street. A welcome change to many whose method to stave off the sleaze was often limited to a pair of headphones blaring loud music.
The law also designates a harsher minimum sentence of two years for offenders holding a position of power over their victims, whether a professional, familial or a teaching position or if armed. Your boss or professor should now know their occasional lewd flirtations would – legally – place him in a higher position in the harasser hierarchy, a position he would not want to find himself in in a court of law.
Sadly, however, Egyptians don’t have much faith in law enforcement. This is so ingrained that it was a common belief that the most brutal attacks against women in and around Tahrir Square (one victim was penetrated with a knife) were orchestrated by the interior ministry to terrorise women from demonstrating and smear the 2011 revolution memory of a utopian square where women and Salafists, the crème de la crème and the urban poor, all mixed and mingled seamlessly.
Some are even worried a new type of police-affiliated thug would emerge: a “harassed screamer” which will be used by corrupt policemen to land anyone out of favour with them in jail. Egypt’s police have been repeatedly accused of fabricating charges against anyone from an anti-regime political activist to a citizen who got into a minor row with an officer or a low ranking policeman (provided of course the potential victim isn’t well connected).
In short, the question is – as with all Egypt’s laws – whether the new legislation will be implemented or not and whether it will it be used fairly.
If not, the move is a positive one. Already 9 have been handed heavy sentences for harassment this month. But was it only because they were stupid enough to commit the crime during celebrations for the electoral victory of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, the strong ex-army chief? Time will tell.
A new traffic campaign
The day after El-Sisi was inaugurated – the day of the mass sexual harassment attack in Tahrir – Cairo’s streets were swarming with traffic police towing different types of vehicles, especially tok-toks, from areas in which they are not allowed to navigate. Although a law penned down in 2010 stipulated area-restrictions on tok-toks, police forces were not pursuing violators, possibly part of their generally lax attitude since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.
Another illegal practice police seemed to suddenly become privy to was the crowding of streets – many of them major avenues – by vendors. In concert with the tok-tok quest, policemen forced street vendors off streets to sidewalks in many areas, most notably in Boulaq, which greatly eased traffic in the area, a generally crowded one connecting the Giza governorate to Cairo’s sprawling middle-class district of Shubra and also downtown.
Videos then circulated online showing governors strolling along city streets in several Egyptian governorates hounding unsuspecting violators, whether unsanctioned vehicles or a kiosk who’s fizzy drinks fridge hindered a pedestrian sidewalk.
The actions were inconsistent in different areas, but they possibly showed a drive to crackdown on chaotic practices that spread after the 2011 revolution, chiefly due to the absence of law enforcement in the first place. Will they finally enforce traffic laws, maybe not eliminating but at least bettering Egypt’s appalling traffic crisis? We all hope so.
Another traffic development is a group of amendments passed by El-Sisi to the traffic law shortly after he became president.
Did you know that according to the traffic law before these amendments, the punishment for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs was to have your license withdrawn, and then revoked in case of repeated offence within a year from the first offence.
According to the new amendment however, a DUI charge can land you in jail for up to a year, and double that for repeating the offence within one year. From now on, make sure to decide who your designated driver is (easier in Egypt since many people don’t drink), especially that the law doesn’t define an acceptable limit of inebriation.
Otherwise, the amendments make punishments for other violations – such as throwing trash out your car window or driving against traffic – harsher. Again, the effect is dependent on its implementation.
Let’s imagine traffic police started doing their job and the harsher penalties resulted in a tangible improvement in inter-city transport, you’d be more inclined to make those long-postponed errands or take a joyride with your buddies right? wrong. With an almost two-fold hike in fuel prices, you might reconsider, maybe even contemplate joining the ranks of the swathes of commuters suffering the claustrophobic conditions of cheaper micro-buses or public transport.
Fuel, and other commodities of lesser importance
While many economists hailed Egypt’s move to remove subsidies and restructure the subsidy system repeatedly criticised for inefficiency and waste, others believe without price controls promised by El-Sisi during his presidential campaign, prices would sky rocket.
To rein in Egypt’s budget deficit, the government trimmed over LE40 billion in spending on energy subsidies. The cuts means 1 litre of 92 octane used to power most household cars would cost LE2.6 instead of LE1.85. And the price of 1 litre of diesel used by a majority of vehicles transporting goods would jump from LE0.7 to LE1.8, eventually raising the prices of the goods themselves.
ِAlready, reports circulated saying microbus fares have increased well above the relative increase in fuel prices. To make matters worse, El-Sisi said in June that price controls won’t be in place before December.
Economists believe in a few months inflation will jump to over 10 percent, surpassing the current 8.2 percent rate, the lowest since a four-year high last November at 13 percent.
To top the expected inflation, new taxes were imposed on certain goods, including cigarettes. If you’re a smoker, and especially if you puff on higher end cigarette brands whose taxes have consistently increased anyway, you’ll be paying a further fixed sales tax of LE2.25 to LE2.75 to acquire the addictive plant.
If you’re unfortunate enough to be smoking an imported brand, well, you’ll have to pay a whole 50 percent rise in its retail price. You read correctly, that’s a half-value increase in price as part of the tax, which also includes the aforementioned fixed tax. So instead of paying LE17 for a pack of Dunhills, you’ll pay LE28.25.
A similar tax was slapped on another luxury good, alcohol. Taxes on local and imported beer will see a 200 percent increase, which translates for example into LE1.2 per 330ml bottle of Stella beer. Taxes imposed on wine and spirits will register a 150 percent increase (minimum of LE15 price increase per litre). So drinking will be a more expensive pastime, and the prices will probably increase further due to inflation.
In short, driving to the mall, buying a few items, eating a meal and ending the day with a few drinks may be a quicker, safer endeavour, but will cost substantially more than before.
While higher income groups will still be able to maintain their lifestyles, the effect on a quarter of Egyptians living below the poverty line may be daunting. And the majority of Egyptians spending below LE4100 a month – almost 94 percent of Egyptian families according to the latest government statistics – will be desperately hoping to glimpse the significant – albeit longer term – economic benefits promised by the hikes.