Having followed media reports last week of the new national strategy to combat corruption, I was pleased to see the state interested in this vital issue and its eagerness to make it a top priority. But when I took a closer look, I began to worry that though motivated by enthusiasm and good intentions, the strategy demonstrated neither a pragmatic vision to achieve its objectives nor a readiness to grapple with the real causes of corruption.
The first cause for concern is that the strategy again puts the state and its agencies at the forefront of anti-corruption efforts, sidelining civil society, the academic community, and the media, despite attempts in recent years to expand participatory efforts (Dr. Ahmed Darwish, former minister of administrative development, began pushing for wider participation a decade ago, though the state disregarded his efforts): The strategy was launched to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Administrative Control Authority, the Anti-Corruption Coordinating Committee is comprised almost entirely of state employees, and the strategy is a government program that involves no outside participants.
The result is that officialdom has again nationalized the issue as if it concerns no one else. But fighting corruption should not be a state monopoly; it is a national goal toward which all of society and its institutions should work, as affirmed by the UN Convention Against Corruption, the leading authority on the issue.
Secondly, before initiating a national strategy, we need answers to several questions that still plague Egyptians nearly four years after the revolution: What accounts for the rampant growth and spread of corruption? Why were oversight bodies ineffective in the past? Was it because of weak capacities, statutory shortcomings, or a lack of political will? Why have the investigations and trials of recent years ended in naught but the pointless prosecution, detention, and humiliation of thousands of government officials, and travel bans, without sufficient evidence, while some responsible for genuine corruption have remained untouched? Clear responses to these and other questions will expose the truth to the public and assure it that this strategy will not entail the same mistakes or be subject to the same pressures that thwarted previous efforts. Trying to combat corruption in the future without understanding the past will produce no better results.
Moreover, the new strategy reportedly involves long familiar, much-discussed measures: the development of government services, limiting interaction with civil servants, stopping encroachments on agricultural land, more transparency, new laws and stiffer penalties. But these obvious measures do not depart from past practices or signal a fundamental change as is appropriate for a new strategy. If different results are desired, we must first reconsider the institutional framework for anti-corruption efforts. In Egypt no less than seven state institutions are directly involved in combating corruption: the Administrative Control Authority, the Central Auditing Organisation, the Public Monies Prosecution, the Financial Affairs Prosecution, the Illicit Gains Authority, the Anti-Money Laundering Unit, and the Anti-Corruption Coordinating Committee. This is in addition to oversight bodies for the protection of state lands, competition, consumers, prices, buildings, health, financial markets, and more.
This complicated structure must be rethought. We must evaluate and identify the role and prerogatives of each body and its success in achieving its assigned objectives. Otherwise, government officials will continue to find themselves beset by a battery of oversight bodies, each with a say in everything, which ultimately cripples the state apparatus and makes officials too wary to make decisions. Meanwhile, large-scale corruption continues unabated, like a microbe that evolves in the face of new medication, and escapes unscathed in the folds of this complex system.
Finally, we must decide what exactly we want. Do we continue pursuing thousands of pending cases to no benefit, or disregard minor infractions and focus on major crimes? Do we fight all types of corruption at once, or start with major corruption and gradually move down to minor crimes? Is this about past crimes or is it about establishing effective systems and mechanisms for prevention in the future?
In all cases, the matter concerns not only the state or oversight bodies, but the entire society. We must debate it and set priorities through participation and discussion. This will bolster credibility and give people hope for different results in the future.
*Ziad Bahaa ElDin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 16 December