This year is likely to witness a lot of developments on the political front, and the newly elected parliament began its meetings this week by summoning Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli to answer questions on the programme the government presented in 2018 when he took office.
“The implementation of the programme has fallen short of expectations and has been full of shortcomings and negative points,” said House of Representatives Speaker Hanafi Gibali, insisting that all cabinet ministers should come to parliament to outline the role of their ministries in implementing the programme that runs until 2022.
In his first appearance before the House, Madbouli insisted that despite the severe impact of the coronavirus on the economy, his government had succeeded in implementing its “Egypt Kicks Off” programme. It had managed to control the prices of food and increase the supply of strategic goods, with the result that the inflation rate had decreased to 5.7 per cent, the lowest in 14 years, Madbouli said.
The implementation of a number of national mega-projects over the past two years had helped to generate job opportunities, cutting the unemployment rate to 7.3 per cent, he said.
His government had done its best to mitigate the harsh economic impact of the coronavirus on the Egyptian people, Madbouli said. “We aimed to strike a balance between the necessity of protecting citizens’ lives and keeping the economy open during the pandemic,” he said.
Madbouli said fighting poverty had always been the cornerstone of his government’s policies. “Our social-protection programmes — particularly Takaful and Karama [Solidarity and Dignity] — are now providing financial assistance to as many as 32 million poorer citizens,” said Madbouli, indicating that the government’s policies in this respect had helped to lower the poverty rate for the first time in 20 years to 29.7 per cent, down from 32.5 per cent in 2017-18.
However, the newly elected MPs were not letting the government off easily. “Parliament should check the figures cited by Madbouli, as many doubt that the government’s policies have really helped the poor,” Diaaeddin Dawoud, a Nasserist opposition MP, said.
He called for the broadcasting of parliamentary sessions, or at least of a summary of parliamentary proceedings. It was the right of the people who elected the legislative assembly to monitor its proceedings, Dawoud said.
Madbouli’s address to parliament is only the beginning, and other cabinet members will follow suit at consecutive hearings. Parliament is bearing down on the government despite the fact that it is dominated by the pro-government Mostaqbal Watan bloc.
The role of the House of Representatives is not only to legislate, but also to monitor the performance of the government, Ashraf Rashad, head of the majority Mostaqbal Watan bloc, said.
Unlike those in Egypt’s previous parliament, the new assembly’s legislators will not let the government off the hook easily.
The first session witnessed harsh criticism of the government’s decision to liquidate the state-owned Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISC), despite the government’s argument that the company is “unfixable”.
The EISC board said the decision had been made as a result of heavy losses that had been accumulating over the past few years and had now reached LE9 billion, LE982.8 million of which had been lost between July 2019 and June 2020.
Madbouli told MPs of his government’s achievements in the infrastructure and transportation sectors. More such projects are on the way. This week an agreement was concluded with the multinational company Siemens for work on a 1,000km national high-speed electric rail network costing $23 billion.
In its first phase, the new network will link Ain Sokhna to Alamein via the New Administrative Capital. The project will take two years to complete, with the civil construction work being carried out by a consortium including two Chinese companies together with the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation, Orascom Construction, Samcrete, and Arab Contractors.
Addressing the MPs, Madbouli also highlighted the huge investments being made in the oil and gas sector. He said the government had invested $50 million in developing oil and gas fields. “Due to new discoveries, the country was able to achieve self-sufficiency in natural gas last year,” he said. “By 2030, Egypt will also be able to achieve self-sufficiency in petroleum products.”
Madbouli said that the priority of his government over the next three years will be to get the economy back on track after last year’s coronavirus shock. “Egypt ranked second in the world after China in terms of achieving positive economic growth rates in 2020,” he highlighted.
The government aims to achieve an annual economic growth rate of six per cent, double exports, and implement a number of infrastructure mega-projects over the next three years, Madbouli said.
Egypt’s economy is expected to expand by between 2.8 and four per cent this fiscal year under the Finance Ministry’s amended targets, compared to its previous expectation of 2.8 to 3.5 per cent.
Madbouli also stressed that “government policy aims to support the Armed Forces and the police in fighting terrorism and reinforcing stability.”
Efforts in this regard have already borne fruit. In Sinai, once a hotbed of terrorism, the government has launched a massive development programme including new school buildings, public parks, healthcare centres, utilities, and other public services. According to local municipal officials, the plan is not just to rebuild and improve existing infrastructure and facilities, work on which started some time ago, but also to introduce new ones.
As one source familiar with the security situation in Sinai put it, “the environment that bred terrorism has been eliminated. People are now seeing a new Sinai thanks to the expansion of development projects.”
The development process is not just about building infrastructure, but is also about human development and building minds, both culturally and intellectually. The Bedouin tribes in Sheikh Zuweid in Sinai have been instrumental in this process as well as in security operations.
On a parallel note, the government is serious about tackling issues for which it had sometimes been criticised. This week, the executive regulations for the new law governing the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt were published. Contrary to the previous law, 70/2017, the new law removes all obstacles to the establishment and operation of NGOs. It gives all existing NGOs a year to comply with the new regulations.
Between 2014 and 2016 there had been a number of crackdowns on foreign-funded NGOs working in Egypt due to the lack of information on their sources of funding. These ended up with the closure of several organisations or the freezing of their assets or imprisonment of some of their personnel in moves that drew criticism from abroad.
Egypt is also serious about producing a new national human-rights strategy. The last of the hearings in which the draft of an integrated long-term national strategy for human rights was discussed was recently held.
Ahmed Ehab Gamaleddin, secretary-general of the Permanent High Committee for Human Rights (PHCHR) and deputy minister of foreign affairs for human rights, hailed the progress that has been made.
The PHCHR, established in November 2018 to formulate a comprehensive strategy on human rights, began work in January last year. Gamaleddin praised the wide-ranging representation at last week’s hearing and the opportunity it had afforded to listen to ideas from civil society on how to boost human rights in Egypt.
“The preparation of Egypt’s first integrated long-term national strategy for human rights is an example of the firm political will behind efforts to boost basic rights and freedoms,” Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.