Unconstitutional government?

Mohamed Salmawy
Wednesday 11 Jul 2018

The new budget has slashed allocations to cultural development. This is a grave mistake, and clashes with obligations under the constitution

How can the new government fulfil the president’s instructions concerning culture, healthcare, education and preservation of identity when it slashed the budget for the ministry in charge of culture and identity and failed to abide by constitutional provisions with respect to allocations for healthcare and education?

When being sworn into office, the president stressed that people were the real treasure of our nation and that building this treasure would be his foremost priority in his second term, stressing that educational, healthcare and cultural development would top the list of the government’s concerns in the forthcoming period.

I had thought that this would be the time for the application of Article 48 of the constitution, which states: “Culture is a right of every citizen and is guaranteed by the state.

The state is committed to support it and ensure access to culture for all citizens without discrimination on the basis of financial capacity, geographical location or any other cause.” This means that the state is required to support all forms of cultural production and make it available to everyone so that, for example, the price of a book does not stand in the way of a poor reader’s ability to access it.

It means that the state must make the cultural and artistic services we see in Cairo available to people in the provinces, from Sinai to the oases and from Damietta to Aswan. This is how justice and equality are achieved in culture.

Unfortunately, as I have been told by some parliamentary deputies, the budget for the Family Library project, for example, has been cut as never before. This upset me considerably.

That project is one of the effective means for applying the above-cited constitutional provisions.

Moreover, it is one of the most important weapons in the fight against the blights of religious extremism and terrorism.

If culture and the arts had been as available to people in the Sinai and Marsa Matrouh as it is to people in Cairo, there would not have arisen those jihadist lairs that we are facing in our current fight against terrorism.

For the government to cut the budget for culture at a time when the president said it should take a priority alongside health and education presents us with a contradiction. The government should explain this.

Article 18 of the constitution states that every citizen is entitled to comprehensive healthcare. It requires the state to “support and enhance the efficacy of public health facilities” and “to allocate to healthcare a percentage of government expenditure of no less than three per cent of GDP, which will gradually increase to global rates”.

Article 19 states that “every citizen has the right to education”, the goal of which is to “build the Egyptian character, preserve national identity, instil the scientific approach in thought, develop talents, encourage innovation, establish civilisational and spiritual values, and promote the application of the concepts of citizenship, tolerance and non-discrimination”.

The article obliges the state to commit no less than four per cent of GDP to education, which ratio should gradually increase until it reaches global rates.

Under Article 21, the state must allocate no less than two per cent of GDP to university education and one per cent of GDP to scientific research. These percentages should also gradually increase to global rates of government expenditures on these activities.

In other words, the government is constitutionally obliged to spend no less than 10 per cent of GDP on health and education. Note, we are talking about GDP, not national income.

I served as the official spokesperson for the Committee of 50 charged with drafting the new constitution after the 30 June 2013 Revolution, and one of my responsibilities was to give daily briefings to the press.

The moment I announced that the new draft constitution would, for the first time in our history, stipulate a minimum government outlay equivalent to 10 per cent of GDP on health and education, the prime minister at the time, Hazem Al-Beblawi, phoned up the chairman of the committee, Amr Moussa, to ask him to eliminate that condition.

He held that it was impossible to meet and that it would make every government that was formed unconstitutional. Moussa brought the matter up in the next day’s meeting of the Committee of 50.

Everyone was opposed to removing the abovementioned ratio which was far less than international rates of expenditure on education and health.

For my part, I said that to remove that minimum requirement was equivalent to abolishing all prospects for the advancement of education and healthcare.

The question that we need to ask now, with respect to the government programme, which I have learned that parliament is likely to approve, is whether the government has adhered to the constitutionally stipulated percentage.

Or did it go the way of its predecessors which flouted that constitutional provision, realising that, in so doing, they made themselves “unconstitutional”, to use the word of the former prime minister?

There is also the question of the budget for culture. I am not talking here about the allocation for the Ministry of Culture which includes construction costs and the salaries of ministry employees, which consume the bulk of the allocation.

Rather, I refer to the sums that are actually spent on cultural activities, such as the Family Library project, which involves other ministries apart from the Ministry of Culture.

At this time of the battle against terrorism and extremism, we should be increasing its budget, not slashing it, even if the constitution does not stipulate a minimum allocation for culture as it does for education and health.

I hope members of parliament take heed of the abovementioned considerations instead of automatically approving the new government programme. Otherwise, they will give the go-ahead to a programme that conflicts with the president’s directives and with the constitution.

That would do an injustice to themselves, not to mention to the venerable parliament in which they sit.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Unconstitutional government? 

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