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Monday, 01 May 2017

Egypt: Do we really need a Cabinet shuffle?

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , Thursday 12 Jan 2017
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With the onset of the new year, rising complaints about price hikes, and increasing media and parliamentary criticism of government performance, the time seems ripe for a Cabinet shuffle

In fact, the rumor mill is already grinding: it will be minimal change, limited to a handful of weak-performing ministers. Or actually, it will bring sweeping change, possibly even a new prime minister.

Or in fact, there won’t be any change—it’s just a way of reminding ministers they’re being constantly monitored so they don’t get too comfortable.

Either way, the matter is not so simple. Under the constitution (Articles 147 and 148), the president’s decision to dismiss the government requires the approval of a majority of parliament. If a new government is formed, it must present its program to the House and again earn majority approval.

A more limited ministerial shuffle would require the approval of at least one-third of the House. Though parliamentary approval may not constitute a real obstacle, any Cabinet change still requires time and effort that dictate serious advance thought.

But the truth is that  rumors of the expected shuffle are overshadowing a discussion of a much more important subject: given the current conditions, would any government have the powers and prerogatives to do its job capably while also being responsible to the public?

According to the constitution, the president is the head of the executive branch (Article 139), but the Cabinet and president both set public policy and oversee its implementation (Article 150). The Cabinet is the supreme executive and administrative body of the state (Article 163), tasked with preserving the nation’s security and protecting citizens’ rights and state interests (Article 167).

The constitution thus establishes a fine balance between the presidency and the Cabinet, while giving executive oversight authority to parliament.

We should recall that one of the criticisms of the new constitution was that it gave the Cabinet powers and autonomy that did not exist in the 1971 constitution.

But is this how it works in practice? I don’t think so. In reality executive power rests with the presidency and the government is not an active partner in defining state policy. Its role is limited to practical implementation. Nor does the parliament exercise any real oversight of government performance. That role is left to security and regulatory agencies, which in turn communicate directly with the presidency.

But then what’s wrong with this? What harm is there if the Cabinet’s job is simply to execute policy set by the presidency? Isn’t the president elected by the people to be the head of the executive?

In my view, this situation has negative practical repercussions that go beyond constitutional theory. Although the president sits at the apex of the executive and selects his government to implement his policies, the Cabinet’s circumscribed role and powers denies it the ability to think in the long term, coordinate effectively among ministries and state agencies, and respond swiftly to developing events and crises. I believe this is the source of what people perceive as weak government performance.

An observer of the recent crises with powdered milk, imported wheat, fertilizer, sugar, and pharmaceuticals will notice that they all share a common feature: a tardy engagement with anticipated problems with known consequences and a reluctance to make a decision. The crisis is only resolved following directives from the presidency or when the armed forces intervene to make up a shortage or rebuild what was destroyed.

Meanwhile, the media machine unleashes criticism of the government, its head and ministers, and their policies, accusing them of failure and dereliction of duty and demanding they be replaced. What the media misses is that ministers have very little room for discretionary action, though they bear sole, full responsibility for any error or fault, even if it followed from the execution of orders from on high.

This isn’t a criticism of the person of the prime minister, and I don’t think He could act with more effort, sacrifice, and sincerity than he already has. It’s about the need to change policies and also the way the country is managed, not the people involved.

The same is true, perhaps even more so, for governors, the heads of public agencies, and heads of governorate directorates—for anyone who possesses power on paper without the adequate tools, resources, or prerogatives to exercise it.

Before a Cabinet shuffle, what the country needs is radical shift in the relationship between the government and the presidency. Ministers should help draft policies and programs and set priorities for public spending; they should be empowered to exercise their constitutional authorities and given greater room to act freely and independently before they can be fairly held to account.

In the current climate, a Cabinet shuffle is neither useful nor harmful. It’s just a move to bring in new faces to appease the public, which might blame the government for now, but sooner or later will realise the problem is bigger, that what’s needed is a change in how the country is managed, not who does it.


*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.

A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 9 January.

 

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