Wheat: Is corruption a problem of society or the system in Egypt?

Hassan Abou Taleb
Wednesday 17 Aug 2016

The corruption revealed in wheat collecting is not the first and will not be the last case. Without effective monitoring and a strict legal system, any attempt to combat corruption will flounder

Despite just criticism leveled at parliament, sometimes it hits its target even before the mission is complete. I am referring to the fact-finding commission formed by parliament to investigate the squandering of public funds during the collection of the wheat harvest. Even though the committee has not concluded its work, and still has a long way to go, preliminary findings on real and fake silos reveal incredible results. When the committee completes its investigation we will be facing one of the biggest corruption scandals in Egypt.

During the collection of locally grown wheat it was said there is a major problem because production is much greater than the storage capacity of silos the Ministry of Supply deals with. Another problem was that some deliveries were a mixture of local and imported wheat, in order to receive the difference in subsidies given to wheat growers by the state.

Various newspapers published photographs of large amounts of wheat either on trucks or in the open air waiting to be assigned to a silo.

There were many comments and articles criticising the government because it has access to an immense volume of locally grown wheat that provides it with rare hard currency, but it is unable to provide appropriate silos for storage.

Everyone thought that Egypt’s wheat production season had achieved its goals of providing a large portion of the wheat expected to be consumed, thus easing the burden on the general budget that would only need to import a smaller volume than in previous years. This in turn would ease the demand on hard currency.

But it appears all this was fiction — a grand deception and fantasy that was intricately fabricated and promoted to the general public by senior officials at the Ministry of Supply, under the pretense of a major and unprecedented achievement.

The preliminary findings of parliament’s wheat investigation committee after visiting very few silos reveal several facts that cannot be ignored. While official statements declared that more than five million tons was delivered, after a partial inventory was undertaken it was discovered that only around half that amount was delivered — three million tons at most. This must be the most blatant daylight robbery of the livelihood of Egyptians and the general budget ever seen.

The major heist reveals multi-layered mid-level to high-level corruption, and an intricate mafia of employees at the Ministry of Supply at different levels of the administration who have no conscience. This in addition to the owners of real or fake silos who are only interested in collecting money they do not deserve, intermediaries who know how to fake and manipulate documents, and the means of collecting commissions and hiding the crime as if nothing happened.

It is a web of societal corruption that includes civil servants and normal citizens, a fusion of declining ethics and values, absence of self-censorship and lax legal sanctions, and an uncanny ability to break the law without hesitation or fear of reprimand. Behind this is a bureaucratic system that is feebler the longer it stays in place. This type of webbed intricate corruption will continue, and there is no consolation for those who are demanding a speedy overhaul of the Egyptian bureaucracy from top to bottom. We should have no pity or mercy for those who practice and promote corruption.

What is certain is that this is not the first time such manipulation and intricate corruption occurs in wheat collecting, which raises many questions about the effectiveness of supervisory agencies at the Ministry of Supply, and where they were in the past. Also, the role of other supervisory agencies affiliated to the president, parliament and others.

Without jumping to conclusions ahead of the findings of the parliamentary committee, there are three key observations to make:

First, that this type of network corruption requires special legislation imposing the stiffest penalties possible against anyone involved, irrespective of their rank or influence.

Second, success by the fact-finding commission in finding out the scope of the problem, its causes and those involved is enough to improve the image, if only partially, of parliament in terms of its ability to protect the rights of the country. It would also correct the general image of the 30 June regime; that after its institutions are now in place they are an effective means to eradicate corruption.

Third, the findings must be quickly translated into legal action against anyone involved in this deplorable act, no matter what their position at the Ministry of Supply or any other ministry. Also, a legislative measure must be taken to eliminate the legal loopholes these corrupt people have taken advantage of for years, as well as stiffening penalties in proportion to the size of this large scale corruption. A strict system for collecting locally grown wheat must be put in place, to prevent corruption.

We all realise that corruption at some levels — such as small bribes or tips that have become custom to accomplish legal transactions — are difficult to eliminate completely. This is where society should step in to uphold wholesome moral, religious and behavioural values.

Meanwhile, the ruling system should provide forms of effective monitoring and swift legal deterrence. In the absence of integration between these two tracks, combating corruption on all levels would be a false hope.

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