Economist Nihal El-Megharbel was one of the 100 Senate membersappointed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. For El-Megharbel, becoming a Senate member was a major move.
She had been in government for 10 years,including in the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Local Development, and the Ministry of Planning. She held the post of viceminister of planning, monitoring and administrative reform, one of only a handful of viceministers at the time. During her tenure at the Ministry of Planning, El-Megharbel’s work included coordinating the preparation of the “Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030”. El-Megharbel was responsible for managing a comprehensive agenda for reforming the planning and monitoring system, including developing a new planning law, improving public investment management, and introducing programme-based budgeting.
While working in the government shedealt with membersof parliament, presented the national developmentplan, interacted with the various committees about it and presented new legislation, but the Senate was a chance to be on the other side, benefiting from her long experience with the executive authority, she said.
El-Megharbel was part of the committee of 30 who were in charge of drawing up the bylaws of the Senate. For two months,she said, they worked on writing the bylaws, taking as reference the bylaws of the former Shura Council, and of the House of Representatives. “Weaimed at confirming the important role of the Senate, as the second chamber of the parliament,as stated in the constitution.”
El-Megharbel was among 20 women appointed to the Senate. They were originally supposed to be only 10, but the president issued a decree doubling the number which she described asa “great”act towards political female empowerment. The female senators are present in almost all committees of the Senate, some of them are the heads of the committees or the deputies, she said.
The advantage of the appointments, she stressed, was that it allowed for a wider representation of sectors that may have otherwise not been represented. For example, among the appointeeswas the head of the Egyptian Nursing Syndicate.That sector, according to El-Megharbel, was vital during the pandemic and in addition was a promising sector for job creation. “Representing this sector in the Senates would definitely help in addressing its needs for further development.”That diversity in representation has served during the discussions in giving depth to debates on laws, she added.
El-Megharbel believes the Senate has an important role to play given that the members of parliament are overseeing dozens of laws.The Senatewould study, review, and discuss these laws to make sure they are constitutional, and to confirm that these laws do not contradict with each other, or overlap,and to ensure they are aligned with best practices.The Senate is here to do that, she said, noting that lawsare now written differently;they are much slimmer and more flexible, leaving the details to the bylaws.
Another distinguishing element of the Senate, according to El-Megharbel, is the specialized committees: the Senate has 14 committees, compared to 30 committees in parliament. The Senate’s committees combine related specialisations together. For El-Megharbel it worked well; she chosehousing, transportation, and local administration, three areas that complement each other. If they had been separated, she said she would have been confusedas to which to join.For the past 10 years she had worked on issues of urban development whether during her tenure in the Ministry of Local Development and The Ministry of Planning or afterwards when she joined UN Habitat focusing on urban policies, legislation, and governance.
For El-Megharbel, it was a relatively short year. Although they began in October, by the time they wrote the bylaws, the parliamentary session was over and elections for new members of parliament were being held. By the time the newly elected MPs began work and approved the Senate bylaws, it was already March. Nonetheless, she said, they discussed several important laws. Among those was the education law which they rejected.The Senate supported the idea of equity, she explained,refusing that only those financially capable could have improved their Thanaweya Amma, or 12th high school grades, and to overload less financially capable families to provide an opportunity for their children. “We know that there are victims for every reform but not selective victims. We cannot choose a certain group to take the fall,”she pointed out, adding thatas a result of discussions of this draft law, the idea of equity was confirmed in other laws.
Another important aspect of the law-making process, she noted, especially with a new republic in the making, is the need to make sure that all the laws are updated, in essence, to reflect the new developments that the country is witnessing, including the expanded urbanisation, the technological development, the applications of the fourth industrial revolution, the changes in the working conditions, the skills needed, the developments in the economy, to ensure sustainability and inclusiveness, and to be able to meet people’s expectations for a better futures.They should also take into consideration the rapid developmentstaking place domestically, regionally, and worldwide. Anotherlaw, that the Senate discussed, was that governing the Egyptian Engineers Syndicate;it was antiquated, dating back to the 1960s, and it was time to updated, taking into consideration new technological development, and modernising the different engineering services. Among its flaws was that it charged trivial fees for the syndicate’s services. “If we want a strong syndicate, it must have adequate resources to finance the services that it provides to its members. This is something to guarantee the efficiency of the syndicate,”El-Megharbel told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Another draft law overseen by the Senate was the General Unified Finance Law which aims among other things at applying a programme and performance-based budgeting, which helps rationalise public expenditure, contributes to raising the efficiency of public spending, and to confirming public sector transparency, and accountability.
The performance-based budgeting, provided for in the new law, is very important and has long been called for. It is vital for the efficiency of public spending, El-Megharbel noted. Transforming the way dozens of ministers and economic units perform their budgeting will take time, effort, and training, she said. “We have done lots of studies about it and consulted with international and local entities, to develop manuals, and to raise the institutional capacity of the ministries to move gradually towards program and performance-based budgeting.We would not be starting from scratch and will benefit from other countries experiences and best practices.”
It also needs political will, she said, from stakeholders, including governmentemployees to believe in this important state budget reform and how it will benefit them as well. A more efficient public spending should mean better services for citizens, she said.“In a large bureaucratic system like ours you want the buy-in of those who will implement the system.”
Egypt will benefit from the public finance reforms introduced by the law, and from allowing a greater role for local administrationin public services provision, going beyond the municipal services, to health, and education services, she stressed.
She expects a change in budget allocation to different sectors going forward because of the implementation of the Decent Life project. Already a lot of infrastructure development which is annually part of the investment budget, will be already allocated, she said. For example, the covering of canals is a huge part of the work done by the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation. This will be completed within the framework of Decent Life in a short span of time. “How are we going to utilise the funds that used to be allocated to these projects?”she asked. Budgets might be allocated to maintenance of these projects, and for promoting innovative local economic activities, that would generate income and create more jobs.
Decent Life is an initiative endorsed bythe president with the objective of improving the quality of life in 4,500 villages, housing 58 per cent of the population, in three years’ time. The project, which is expected to cost some LE700 billion, comes within the framework of the Sustainable Development Strategy: Egypt Vision 2030.
Decent Life is a dream come true, she stressed, explaining that while evidence shows that growth comes with urbanisation, if rural areas do not have adequate services and more jobs, rural-urban migration will continue, ruralising the urban areas.“We want to increase urbanisation while improving life in rural areas.”
“The fact that this is happening at this large scale is amazing.We are not selecting villages, but it is happening across the board,” she said, stressing “there is an incredible level of coordination and cooperation between the various concerned ministries and the authorities on the ground.”
What is also important, she said,was maintenance and sustainability of these newinfrastructure projects and public services. “There has to be sense of ownership from the people to look after it and improve it,” she said, adding that civil society has a major role in raising awareness over how to maintain these new infrastructure projects, and public services.
“We have to take the good practices in this project and scale them up and implement themin other projects, especially in terms of government coordination, and promoting the concept of the whole of government” El-Megharbel stressed.
Going forward, El-Megharbel hopes to see three interconnected laws coming through. First isthe planning law, prepared by the government, to update the current planning law, that was issued in 1973, and which is not reflecting all the new developments that the planning process witnessed over the years, including moving from a centralised system of planning to indicative planning, and promoting local planning, she noted.The unified building law is also in the works, she said, one that tackles various housing related issues, including construction violations. And the third law is that oflocal administration.“It is important to reform the local administration, local planning, and increase local resources, to improve public services delivery, especially municipal services” she said.
El-Megharbel also emphasised the importance of theNational Urban Policy developed by the Egyptian government in cooperation with UN Habitat. This includesthe policies that the government is implementing to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11): to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, and to integrate the New Urban Agenda in the national urban policy mainstream.
There will be consultations with other ministrieson what the role of each ministryis to make it happen, she explained. It has the status of each city using the latest data. The urbanisation, economy, environment, mobility, and governance of each city is examined. Accordingly,cities are divided into groups according to their economic potential. El-Megharbel said the Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities will profile each governorateindicating what type of cities they have and recommendations on how to maximise the benefits from urbanisation, adding that the boom in urban development in Egypt is unprecedented. Egypt is committed to realising SDG 11, stressed El-Megharbel. “We aim at maximising the benefit from urbanisation to provide a better life, boost the economy, increase jobopportunities,and to safeguard the environment.”
The Ministry of Housing, Utilities, and Urban Communities represented by the General Organisation for Physical Planning created a task force to conducta reporting and monitoring mechanism for the New Urban Agenda, adopted in 2016. Egypt was one of only 16 countriesthat submitted their report, including all the developments that urbanisation witnessed in Egypt during the period 2016-20, said El-Megharbel: “We are keen on keeping our international commitments, and on showing case and setting a good example to be followed by other countries in the region.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly