The new Civil Service Law No. 18/2015 - which last week sparked the largest public demonstrations in a long time - is in theory a step toward reforming the state bureaucracy and ending an unsustainable situation in which the number of state employees keeps rising, along with the share of public salaries in the state budget, while public services and utilities keep deteriorating together with civil servants’ working conditions.
The new Law sets forth a comprehensive, ambitious framework for the reform of the bureaucracy: it introduces a human resource development approach in government agencies; transparent announcement of vacant positions, standardised testing to fill them; it increases the proportion of base pay to variable pay and organizes a system of voluntary early retirement; it also creates the new post of permanent undersecretary in all ministries and puts term limits on leadership positions; it offers a longer maternity leave; and it establishes a new system for assessing employee performance thus allowing career advancement for those who excel.
But if the Law isn’t that bad for civil servants, why have tens of thousands of them turned out in such big protest? The reason isn't the law per se, but rather the way the government passed it, explained it, and defended it, and here are the four main reasons:
First, although the Law was promulgated on March 12, there is still a debate over who will be subject to its provisions and who will not. Article (1) of the Law states that it applies to “ministries and their departments, government agencies, local administrative units, and public authorities, provided the laws and decrees establishing them do not state otherwise.”
This means that every government body or agency established by special law—and they are numerous—may be excluded from the application of the new Law if their statutes exempt them from the Civil Service Law. This ambiguity justifies civil servants' suspicions towards the Law, especially as some ministers and officials were quick to reassure their employees that they were lucky and would not be subject to the Law, thus sending an extremely negative message.
Second, the Law defers too many of its detailed provisions to the implementing regulations, to be issued by the prime minister, who also has the power to unilaterally amend them.
Issues to be defined by the implementing regulations include: formation and operation of human resources committees, the rules for employee training, for selecting permanent undersecretaries, for announcing vacant positions, rules for filling senior positions, for restricting nepotism, procedures for employees’ performance reviews, standards for promotion, rules for employee transfers and secondment, the entire bonus and incentive system, rules for absenteeism, determination of official vacations, and rules for calculating the salary of part-time employees.
This is not an exhaustive list. And although it is normal for the detailed workings of any law to be further elaborated in its implementing regulations, in this case the entire law is left to the regulations, heightening concern and suspicion of what the government intends for state employees.
Third, both the provisions of the new Law as well as statements by ministers have dealt with the issue of occupational fairness primarily from the perspective of wages. That’s good, but not enough because it ignores the flagrant discrimination not only in wages, but also - perhaps more importantly - in working conditions. Some departments and agencies will naturally differ from others in their facilities and employee services depending on their location, importance, and the role they play.
But in Egypt there are enormous disparities. While a civil servant in a special public agency works in a clean, air-conditioned office with all the necessary equipment—conditions that every civil servant deserves—his/her colleagues in a regular department or far-flung village may work in an office unfit for humans without a fan, paper, or toilet. These disparities are what enrage and frustrate the vast majority of civil servants, and lead them to not do their jobs, regardless of how much the proportion of their wages in the public budget increase.
Finally, the state presented and defended the new Law as no more than a set of technical, legalistic provisions without any understanding that law is a complex social phenomenon. Attention must be paid to how its implementation, acceptance among the people, and to the vested interests it may threaten.
Take one example: the new Law establishes a state-of-the-art system for evaluating employee performance, similar to those used at multinationals. This is a noble objective and achieving it would represent the height of civil service reform.
But can it be implemented in just a few weeks for seven million employees without first designing a massive program that may take years to plan and execute? Or is the text of the Law enough, and we are to ignore the rampant corruption in the state bureaucracy, the culture of favoritism, and the capacity of the Egyptian bureaucracy to empty legal texts of their meaning? Laws are unworkable if we disregard their cultural and social context.
This is not a call to refrain from legal reforms in fear of resistance. It is a recognition that genuine reform cannot be instituted simply by fiat; it requires social awareness and acceptance, and mechanisms for implementation that ensure success, even if it takes a while.
The problem of the civil service in Egypt is real. And those who pay the price are not only employees working in frustrating conditions, but the entire society and national economy.
I propose neither abandoning the Law forever and maintaining the current status quo, nor moving toward immediate implementation without preparation.
I propose that both parties to the current debate —the government and union leaders—agree to a one-year moratorium on the Law, not to gain more time, but to achieve five concrete objectives: 1) put the Law before the elected parliament, as is proper with legislation of such importance; 2) specify the government bodies to which it applies and repeal unjustified exceptions; 3) put important provisions referred to the implementing regulations in the original Law; 4) draft a plan for a minimum level of justice in working conditions, not only wages; and 5) prepare to implement a national program to inform and train civil servants on the new Law, to form and train the new committees, and to provide the conditions that guarantee successful application.
The matter is too important for the stronger party to force victory or to be subject to last-minute compromise. It requires preparation and real social consensus.
The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday, 18 August.