Parliament Speaker Hanafi Gibali has described his agreement with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli that all 31 cabinet ministers should come to parliament to deliver statements on the role of their ministries in implementing the Egypt Kicks Off programme as “an obligation, and not an optional” outing. It is an obligation, what’s more, that some members of cabinet will likely regret having to undertake.
In a plenary meeting on 21 January it was the turn of Minister of Public Enterprise Hisham Tawfik to face MPs. He was promptly accused of unwarrantedly liquidating public sector companies, including the iconic Egyptian Iron and Steel Company (EISC).
Tawfik told MPs that both privatisation and liquidation were a last resort to which the government only made recourse “after the financial losses of public sector companies hit billions of pounds.”
EISC, he said, had lost LE15.6 billion over the last 20 years, and though “we tried our best to stem the losses we failed because the company suffers from a host of chronic problems, including massively outdated technology.”
According to Tawfik, of Egypt’s 120 public sector companies 48 are currently loss making and though plans are in the pipeline to reform some loss-making companies. There is no realistic expectation that others can be turned around.
The government, he said, has already invested LE1.5 billion in updating spinning and weaving companies and the sector is now showing signs of recovery. The government, he added, expects the sector to move into profitability within the next few years.
On 18 January, it was Supply and Internal Trade Minister Ali Al-Moselhi who MPs singled out for criticism, accusing him of stripping millions of citizens of ration cards.
Al-Moselhi denied that the number of ration card holders had fallen.
“What we did was to correct the database of beneficiaries and as a result the number of citizens eligible to receive subsidised bread fell from 81 million to 71 million,” said Al-Moselhi. He then explained that the correction involved ensuring that each family had a single, rather than multiple, ration card.
On 24 April Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel-Ati faced questions from MPs who wanted to know why negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) had repeatedly failed to reach an agreement.
The answer was simple, said Abdel-Ati, it was the fault of “Ethiopia’s intransigence”.
He elaborated: “Even when the African Union took charge of the GERD negotiations and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok pushed for a new initiative, Ethiopia acted only to disrupt technical and legal agreements that had been reached in Washington.”
“Four meetings have so far been held under the supervision of the African Union, and the Ministers of Irrigation and Foreign Affairs of the three countries have met five times” and no progress has been made because of Addis Ababacs stubbornness.
“It is essential that GERD does not impact negatively on Egypt’s quota of Nile water, so essential, indeed, that this is the most important file for all state authorities in Egypt right now,” said Abdel-Ati.
“While the Ministry of Irrigation is working on the technical aspects of any deal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is addressing the political and legal dimensions of the GERD file.”
The GERD negotiations were also the focus of a statement delivered by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to parliament on 26 January. Shoukri accused Ethiopia of acting unilaterally in the GERD dispute, and said Egypt’s strategy remained to press for a technically and legally binding agreement.
According to Shoukri, Egyptian diplomacy is seeking a just and balanced agreement over GERD that allows Ethiopia to achieve its development goals while preserving Egypt and Sudan’s rights to Nile water. “The Nile can never be the monopoly of a single country. All Nile states have the right to benefit from the river,” said Shoukri.
Shoukri also addressed Egyptian-American relations in Tuesday’s statement to MPs.
He argued that Egyptian-American relations were sufficiently solid to withstand the vagaries of US party politics, and that Cairo remained keen to reinforce its strategic partnership with the US in the economic, commercial and military fields. Shoukri also stressed the two countries mutual interest in fighting terrorism.
Deputy Speaker Mohamed Abul-Enein criticised what he called repeated attempts by some US Congressmen to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.
“There is a bloc inside the US Congress that seeks to use the issue of human rights as a pretext to intervene in Egyptian internal affairs,” said Abul-Enein. “They ignore the efforts being exerted by the Egyptian state in the area of respect for public freedoms and civil rights.”
“We need to send a message to US Congress that Egypt respects human rights and the state is doing its best to improve the economic and social conditions of its citizens.”
On the same note Ashraf Rashad, the leader of the majority Mostaqbal Watan party, berated foreign parliamentarians who use the issue of human rights to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs. “It is unacceptable that these people use terms like detention and forced disappearance as a way to intervene in our domestic matters,” said Rashad. “US Congress should devote its energies to taking better care of America's own affairs.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.