Alef Baa B Adala Egtimai'a (A B Social Justice), by Reem Abdel Haleem – (Cairo: Maray Publishing House), 2018
For nearly a decade now Social Justice has been a popular demand by Egyptians. The term is familiar for everyone, but translating it into economic policies that people can feel in their daily life is a matter for economists to suggest and governments to imply. Economist Reem Abdel Halim Ph.D. in her latest book “AB Social Justice” tries through simple examples and easy language to highlight the discussions around that subject and observes the policies that are applied in Egypt and measures how they affects social justice in the society.
The first fact observed in the book is that the poorest classes in the society have very little influence on the economic policies that affect their lives whether on daily basis or on the long run. In economic terminology this is called structural inequality; the obvious result is the lack of confidence in the governmental entities that make the decision without considering the poor. In addition, the policies implied benefit different classes than the one that needs it the most; hence a richer class gets the subsidies that the poor were supposed to acquire. The poor classes that lack pressure techniques and political power end up more marginalized and therefore get poorer and their contribution in the economic growth becomes even more insignificant.
The difficulty in handling the concept of social justice is its definition. It is a vast notion hard to concise in specific steps or policies that end up with achieving a goal, rather according to Dr. Abdel Haleem it’s a spirit that the whole society adopts to reach equality among the various classes. This equality suggested is in services, subsidy and political expression through voting on economic and political issues as a start.
In the Global Wealth Report conducted by Credit Swiss bank in 2014, Egypt was found among only three countries where disparity of wealth increased rapidly before and after the international financial crisis of 2008. This disparity put Egypt in the eighth position in the list of the worst countries among distribution of wealth; the description was that Egypt is suffering from high level of inequality. It also pointed out that the richest 10% control 70% of the countries resources. Through that domination they control the lives of the remaining 90% in one way or another whether by the wages they pay and the investments they make as well as the money they keep in the country or that they transfer to foreign banks. Another disturbing statistic mentioned was that the wealthiest 1% control 48.5% of Egypt’s wealth and 91.4% of the population has a fortune of $ 10,000 and there are eight people in the country whose fortune exceeds a billion dollars; as for social justice on a scale of 10 Egypt’s level is at 2.28.
The argument that the concentration of wealth lead to economic growth has not been a solid one since the poor classes or those whose needs were delayed until the economic reform bear its fruits did not feel any improvement in the quality of living and actually the prices increase not met with equal increase in income has made their lives even more difficult.
The author through five chapters examined a few issues related to social justice. First, the relationship between wages and productivity, the difficulty in calculating productivity is a major issue in the Egyptian economy due to impossibility of measuring the wages in the undocumented economy. Another problem is that wages has become a huge item in the government’s budget and became a hard issue to touch because it will affect millions of people (governmental employees and their families).
The second issue was the investment horizons. Dr. Abdel Halim distinguished two types of investors, those who suffer from red tape and long procedures in order to get the necessary licenses and approval to start their activities whether industrial or commercial; the second type that she called the super investors who get their requests approved on a faster pace, get the land in cheap prices and establish economic projects that bring high returns without taking into consideration giving the “regular” investor the opportunity of growth in the market.
Third, the researcher observed that the whole society is in an economic crisis, the reform policy applied to get an extra income for the government was lifting the subsidy on fuel gradually since 2008 which led to increase in the prices of agricultural products affecting the poor harder than the other classes. The tough economic policies led to increase in unemployment while narrowing the job market for the unskilled labor as well as the skilled one. On the other hand the taxation policies and laws were not effective in closing the tax evasion loopholes for the rich who were able to hide their real income.
The fourth factor studied was the geographical distribution of services. Dr. Abdel Haleem observed that location can be a curse for the majority of the population living in the country side. There is lack of investment, lack of services and a narrow job market. Taking the geographical factor into consideration while making economic planning was nonexistent even though there are laws and recommendation since the 1970’s to divide Egypt into five economic regions to achieve geographical justice.
Finally, the author concluded that achieving social justice is a political decision. Stopping the pampering of the richest class and treating the rest of the classes fairly should be in the minds of policy makers to reach a just society, better yet empowering the poor classes and those who have no voices to have a say in the economic decisions affecting them would be an even better tool to reach that goal.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Social Justice … it takes a village